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February 2nd, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: A living wage for council members?

Freethought San Marcos: A column

There are three basic forms of home rule city government in Texas:

  • Council-Manager form
  • Mayor-Council form
  • Commission form

San Marcos citizens chose the Council-Manager form when it was incorporated in 1967. Most home-rule cities in Texas have the council-manager form of city government, as described in The Texas Handbook: “… a city council as a policy body and a city manager as the chief executive-administrative officer of city government. … In larger cities (council members) spend a considerable amount of time on their city duties. … The norm for Texas cities is token pay, consistent with the original concept of the council-manager plan, which placed policy responsibility in a part-time elected body, and management of the city’s business in a professional city manager.”

With the Mayor-Council form of city government, usually a mayor is elected at-large, and serves as the city’s chief administrative officer, and an elected council serves as the municipality’s legislative body. The council has the authority to formulate and adopt city policies and the mayor, who is usually paid, is responsible for carrying them out, much like a city manager. While the mayor in this system attends and presides over council meetings, he or she does not vote, except in the case of a tie.

The commission form, similar in some ways to how counties are governed in Texas, provides for the election of commissioners who function collectively as the city legislative body and individually as city department heads, appointing and removing city officials by majority vote.

Being paid for service on the San Marcos City Council became an issue during the mayoralty of Kathy Morris, who was elected in 1988. Starting in 2000, after a charter amendment, city council members were paid $100 for each meeting attended, and they were paid for their expenses, sometimes with an annual cap on expenses and sometimes with no limit on expenses. In 2002, the $100 payment per meeting was repealed by charter amendment and council members were allowed to determine their own expenses through the city budgeting process and by resolution of the council. Also during Morris’s mayoralty, the city began paying for health insurance for city council members, but this compensation did not last long.

In 2006, voters overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to reinstate the $100 per meeting payment. In voting last November, a charter amendment allowing the city council to set its own pay passed overwhelmingly.

Why would the voters so dramatically change their collective minds, giving unfettered discretion to the council after rejecting the modest $100 per meeting payment just two years earlier?

To understand this development, it is necessary to review some city history. Elections used to be held in the spring until Mayor Narvaiz, in 2005, pushed for changing the city elections to November. In the opinion of knowledgeable insiders at City Hall, one of the mayor’s publicly unacknowledged reasons for doing so was her belief that city elections would be less noticeable if they were held with county, state, and national elections in November, rather than with school district elections in the spring. Some people believe that she felt the voters would pay less attention to charter amendments if there were a lengthy ballot, with city issues at the end.

This change is the most plausible explanation for why, within a period of two years, the voters would change from overwhelming disapproval of paying council members $100 per meeting to allowing the council members to determine their own pay, which could be set at any amount from nothing to $50,000 or more.

It was no accident that former mayor Kathy Morris was appointed to chair the 2008 Charter Review Commission, which made the recommendation to give council members unbridled discretion to pay themselves. She was the first San Marcos mayor to demand her own personal office at City Hall outfitted with expensive furnishings (other council members shared another office that was also a conference room). She was the first mayor to treat the mayor’s position like a calling. While she wasn’t paid for nearly full-time work as mayor, it appeared to many observers that her contacts and connections with the movers and shakers operating in San Marcos greatly benefited her husband’s real estate and development interests.

Subsequent mayors (Billy Moore, David Chiu, Bob Habingreither) did not spend as much time working in the position because they had other jobs. It wasn’t until Mayor Narvaiz took over the mayor’s job and sold her business that she had the time to approach being mayor in much the same fashion as had Morris. Naturally, Narvaiz would like to be paid a substantial sum for turning the mayor’s position into a full-time job. She already has a private office, courtesy of Morris and the taxpayers.

Some other council members see similar opportunities, as well. Chris Jones, for example, would like to have his own personal office away from City Hall paid for by the taxpayers, as well as a nice paycheck for serving on the city council. As things stand now, there is nothing that prevents Jones or any other council member from renting an office away from City Hall and charging the cost as an expense. After all, Narvaiz has used the council expense budget, at her sole discretion, to organize and pay for political events around town, none of which are specifically approved or authorized by council action.

The council-manager form of city government was never intended to create full-time jobs for council members or mayors. That’s the purpose of having a high-paid city manager to run the city’s business. The council is supposed to determine city policy; approve budgets, ordinances, contracts; hire and fire the city manager, city clerk, city attorney, and the municipal court judge; and make appointments to city boards and commissions. The full-time work of administering the city is in the hands of the four officials it hires and those appointed to boards and commissions. Many of the meetings and events attended by council members and the mayor are more for political purposes than for doing any vital city business. A lot of the time spent in council meetings is ceremonial, and involves micromanaging the administration.

If voters were given another opportunity to decide on compensation for city council members at an election not overwhelmed by an historic presidential election, I have no doubt that their decision would be like most such decisions over the last 40 years. The voters might approve modest compensation, but they would not approve becoming like Austin and Dallas, with salaried council members and mayor. We are still a small town. We don’t need salaried council members to run the city while we have highly paid professionals who are assigned that task. All salaried council members will give us is full-time elected officials who can spend more time campaigning for the next election at taxpayer expense.

Undoubtedly, the finest San Marcos mayor I have known in the last 25 years was Emmie Craddick. She served as mayor not by working as a substitute city manager, putting her fingers in every aspect of city operations and doing favors for her business cronies. She served by being a wise, thoughtful, articulate, and strong leader, not by trying to dominate every decision of the council and intimidating council members into following her views. She had robust opinions on many issues, but she did not try to impose those views on the council. In all her disagreements with council members, she never got into a shouting match because of a difference of opinion over a public issue. The same can’t be said about the two “full-time” mayors who have followed her.

The Council-manager form of city government was never intended to result in paid council members. However, I doubt that this will deter this city council from paying itself handsomely. The Mayor, at least, already takes all the perks she wants by calling her perpetual campaigning “expenses,” paid for by taxpayers. If she decides to give someone a gift, that too can be charged off as a public expense. She is not accountable to anyone, especially to this milquetoast city council, so why should the rest of the council hold themselves accountable? Perhaps the voters have what they deserve for not paying attention.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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3 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: A living wage for council members?

  1. This opinion is ludacris! Yes, the council was approved by the voters to consider compensation, however, if you attend the meetings you would know the thinking of the council. They do not intend in acquiring a salary, just a minimal compensation for time; which in turn will hopefully encourage more community involvement in running for office. This article is somewhat unfounded, obviously the author did not attend the council meeting in which this particular issue was discussed. Good Job Lamar, you really know how to discredit a publication.

  2. Question: What happens with all the unspent donations leftover in the mayor’s campaign account if they are not spent during the campaign season. Does she get to keep them for herself?

  3. They actually go towards her next re-election. If not seeking a re-election, the law, states she can keep the money.

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