- Sarah Arnoff
"I represent a diverse population and they're economically diverse as well. I'd like to see a broader piece of that economic spectrum be able to consider this service and not have it be a financial burden on their families," District 5 City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall says.
In the more than five years Erin Mendenhall has served on the Salt Lake City Council, she says she's paid babysitters more than what she's earned coming to City Hall.
When she's asked friends to consider running for office, they've told her they wouldn't be able to make the hours and finances work.
The yearly pay for a council member, which is meant to be a part-time job, is $26,291 for this fiscal year.
"One person is a school teacher and another individual has a typical 9-to-5 job," the District 5 councilwoman says of people she's approached about running. "They came back and said, 'I'd really like to, but I can't afford to. My job doesn't have that flexibility and I can't afford to lose those kind of hours.'"
As a result, Mendenhall says, the council's pay has discouraged residents who would like to serve but aren't able to because of financial reasons. Last week, the council discussed raising compensation for its members. While there is yet no formal proposal, the council is planning to float the idea at a public hearing during its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
"This is [an] entry-level electorate office," Mendenhall, who previously worked with the nonprofit group Breathe Utah, tells City Weekly. "We should be able to have a more diverse section of our population be able to access this office."
While the seven council members admit talking about their own pay publicly is a sensitive subject, Mendenhall points out it's a double-edged sword. "The longer you don't raise the pay, the more inaccessible this office becomes," she says.
In 1980, according to council documents, the $9,700 annual salary was meant to reflect one-fourth of the mayor's pay and followed the thinking that for the mayor's 40 hours of work, council members would be expected to put in at least 10. But as Cindy Gust-Jenson, the council's executive director, pointed out during last week's meeting, the job's responsibilities often include much more than 10 hours.
"One of the values the public voted for in establishing this form of government was to have a citizen council and it be part time ..." she told the council. "There are times of year during the budget or legislative session where there are council members spending in excess of 30 hours."
Since the '80s, the mayor's salary has risen from $39,000 to more than $143,000, exceeding the 4:1 ratio. The council, though, has also at times declined to raise its pay. If the council members wanted to return to the 4:1 idea, they'd need to raise salaries by about $9,000 each, and could do so without a budget increase, according to city documents. The same staff report pointed out that those who serve on the Salt Lake County Council earn more than $40,000.
Members' responsibilities, of course, extend beyond just meetings, as Mendenhall suggests. She estimates she spends about 20 hours a week in meetings. Other parts of the job—such as reading council information packets and responding to constituents—increases that number. Mendenhall is also working on completing a master's degree.
Council members are expected to attend community council meetings. Across the city, the number of councils ranges from three to eight per district and a total of 27 are registered with the city. District 7 is the lone exception with the Sugar House Community Council in its boundaries. There were only eight community councils when the salary ratio was established almost 40 years ago.
But where do you draw the line between adequate compensation and maintaining the spirit of public service? Chase Thomas, executive director at Alliance for a Better Utah, says there isn't an easy answer.
After seeing the initial news, Thomas wrote on the group's Twitter feed that, "Utah prides itself, at least in the Utah Legislature, on being a part-time government and sacrificing for civil service. But are the structures and salaries for our government officials preventing our government from being fully representative of the communities they serve?"
Thomas says that could be the case. It could make some, especially those in younger age demographics who aren't as advanced in their careers, turn away from the public sector.
Like Mendenhall before she joined the council, Thomas works in the nonprofit sector.
"I went to law school and I have a bunch of debt, so it's a sacrifice for me to do nonprofit, governmental work," he says. "But it's something I want to do, so I'm willing to make that sacrifice. It shows with the average age of the type of people who do serve—normally it's over 60 years old in the state Legislature—people who are able to take that time off."
No council members spoke out against the idea of a pay raise at last week's meeting. But they encouraged the public to attend the next week's public hearing at the City and County Building to voice their opinions.
The council's report listed three "sometimes conflicting values" regarding council compensation, including one statement that says, "Local elected office is a public service and should be compensated minimally vs. absent reasonable compensation, the pool of potential candidates could be inadvertently limited to persons of financial means."
"Certainly, family support is important to some, flexibility with an employer or with their own business may be important to others ..." Mendenhall says. "We are anxious to preserve the options for people from all levels of income and types of life circumstances to serve. It isn't appropriate to assume that support from a spouse, ownership of a business or other fortunate situations are a prerequisite to public service."
District 2 Councilman Andrew Johnston told his colleagues he would be open to the idea of raising the pay to match the 4:1 ratio. There are many trade-offs, he said, when it comes to the job, and the time he allots for council business takes away from other responsibilities.
"The quality of representation sometimes reflects the amount of time you have," Johnston said during the meeting. "If I'm willing to check my emails on a daily basis to help with constituent issues, that's time I have to find somewhere else. Maybe I don't sleep; maybe I don't go to something else."
The city also is facing new issues as it grows. Debate around the Inland Port and homelessness are just a few contentious topics that require more attention from the council and show how its responsibilities have changed, according to city documents.
"It's about access to a democracy," Mendenhall concludes. "Serving on the city council is a wonderful experience to be able to represent your neighborhoods, and as we grow as a city, it's important we keep our diversity."