City Council’s Stealth Pay Raises

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Austin City Council’s Pay Raises Fly Under the Public Radar

County Commissioners Court Raises Require Published Notice, Signed Approval

The Austin City Council of 2006
The Austin City Council of 2006

The Austin City Charter (Article 1, Section 2) establishes the city council as the city’s policy making body. But when it comes to giving themselves a pay raise, the mayor and city council members are just part of the rank and file.

When city employees get a raise, so do council members—automatically, without any public disclosure required.

The mayor and council members have obtained three such raises in the last four years. While the cumulative amount of these recent raises has been relatively small, the process is far from transparent.

From 2000 to 2010, the mayor’s salary has increased 124 percent, council members’ 109 percent.

Adding to the lack of transparency, salaries for the mayor and council members are not posted anywhere on the city’s website, a fact confirmed by the city’s public information office. Council payroll documents for the past five years were obtained by The Austin Bulldog through submission of an open records request and payment of $127 in fees to retrieve and search boxes of older records. Because of the city’s inadequate initial response to the request, incomplete records, and the city’s changing methodology for documenting council pay changes, clarity was achieved only after submitting numerous follow-up e-mails to city officials to obtain answers.

The city’s current system of pay raises for the mayor and council members was established November 16, 2006, when the council led by Mayor Will Wynn voted unanimously to pass Ordinance 20061116-081. This ordinance grants future raises to the mayor and council members “…equal to the base percentage amount established for ‘meets expectations’ compensation adjustments for non-Civil Service employees.” (Only police and firefighters are civil service employees and their pay is determined by contracts. The rest of the city’s 12,000 workers are not civil service employees.)

Tom Smith

Tom “Smitty” Smith is director of Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit group that addresses a broad range of public policy issues, including what it calls “clean government” by working to hold public officials accountable.

“I think Austin City Council members should be well paid, comparable to the other 20 large metropolitan cities in the United States,” Smith says, “because it’s more than a full-time job.

“But council members pay raises should not be done through subterfuge,” Smith says.

Smith says the Texas Legislature is an example of more extreme subterfuge. When our low-paid lawmakers vote to raise judicial salaries they are actually voting to raise their own retirement pay, because their retirement pay is pegged to judicial salaries.

The preferred way to address salaries for council members, Smith says, is for the city auditor or some other disinterested official to establish a citizens committee removed from council influence that would study compensation issues and make recommendations for the council to adopt.

While the City of Austin’s methodology is opaque, this below-the-radar procedure is permitted by Local Government Code Section 141.004, which states, “The governing body of a home-rule municipality may set the amount of compensation for each officer of the municipality.”

County commissioners are much more closely regulated. In fact, Local Government Code Section 152.013 requires newspaper publication of a notice of any salaries, expenses, or allowances that are proposed to be increased for all elected county or precinct officers—including the amount of proposed increases—more than 10 days before the commissioners court meets for a budget hearing and adopts the budget. To view the ad published for the current fiscal year click here.

County commissioners must publicly vote on these proposed pay increases. Then, each member of the commissioners court must personally sign the order setting salaries for elected officials, including their own. To see the order for the current fiscal year click here.

Council raises 2000 to 2010

In early 2000 the mayor was paid $33,000 per year and council members $30,000.

That same year the mayor’s pay was increased by $20,000 to a total of $53,000, and the council pay was increased by $15,000 to a total of $45,000, according to a May 19, 2000, report in The Austin Chronicle.

Mayor and council pay was not increased again until the 2006 ordinance was passed. That action set the mayor’s pay at $67,981 and council pay at $57,736.

Since the 2006 ordinance was passed, the council has granted raises to city employees three times in four years, the last time being in 2010. Correspondingly, the mayor’s pay has risen from $67,981 per year to $73,944 and council members pay has grown from $57,736 to $62,795.

The mayor and council members are also paid an automobile allowance of $5,400 a year, a figure that has not changed since it was approved in 2006.

The mayor and council members are entitled to a cell phone allowance of $75 a month. All but one council member stopped taking the phone stipend soon after the county attorney’s office started looking into whether these elected officials had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Austin American-Statesman reported April 5, 2011.

That investigation is still underway.

2006 ordinance action

According to documents obtained through an open records request,Mayor Will Wynn and then Council Member Jennifer Kim both declined to take the pay raises they voted to approve in 2006, while Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken accepted the raises. All four have since left the council.

The current city council includes Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez, all of whom were council members in November 2006, voted for the ordinance, and accepted the pay raises.

The conversation leading up to the November 16, 2006 vote, as recorded in the closed-caption transcript for Item 81, was brief. Mayor Pro Tem Dunkerley, who made the motion to pass the ordinance, noted that council salaries had last been adjusted in 2000. Council Member McCracken seconded the motion and talked about the drastic city budget cutbacks that had taken place since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Mayor Wynn summed up before the vote: “I will just say that I trust people recognize that no elected official relishes the opportunity to vote on one’s own pay. That’s the situation we have found ourselves in over these years as has previous councils and I think the council has taken appropriate action this afternoon.”

Passage of the 2006 ordinance made sure no future city council would ever have to do so, unless action is taken to modify the statute.

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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