Donna Macdonald was a Nelson city councillor for 19 years. File photo

Donna Macdonald was a Nelson city councillor for 19 years. File photo

What’s a city council job worth?

Former city councillor Donna Macdonald weighs in on what local politicians are paid

I think most of us would jump at the chance to determine how much we’re paid for the work we do. We’d think about how hard we work, how skilled we are, and how much responsibility we carry (and maybe how big our student debt is). We’d stir that together and come up with our value, a measure of what we think we contribute to society through our work.

Depending on our sense of self-worth, we might shoot much higher or lower than an independent observer would. A lot of values are at play as well. Just think of NHL players versus child-care workers — who has the more valued job?

Elected officials do get to collectively set their compensation, but it’s not an unfettered privilege. For sure the employer (the public) is watching, and might have a few things to say about council’s self-valuation. But as councils and regional districts are finalizing their financial plans (budgets) for the coming years, a number has to go on the line item that says “elected officials’ compensation.” How to find the right figure?

When I was first elected in 1988, the tradition had been for council to simply set its stipend each year, for themselves. But we thought there was a better way, and established a new process in 1990.

First of all, the current council would set compensation for the council that would follow. Certainly, that would mean that if an incumbent successfully ran for re-election, they would have participated in setting their own stipend. But that’s impossible to avoid. It seems unlikely that a councillor intent on re-election would be championing a large pay increase!

In fact, it could go the opposite way. I remember an all-candidates meeting many years ago, when an audience member asked all the candidates: “Please stand if you would run for office without any compensation.” Almost everyone enthusiastically leapt to their feet. Only former mayor Gerald Rotering and I exchanged a glance and stuck to our seats. We knew too well that council is a big job and deserves to be compensated.

The second change we made in 1990 was to appoint an independent community-based committee to do some research and thinking, and make a recommendation to council. We decided the committee must include a business person, a former council member, and a representative of the clergy. Perhaps the latter was to provide some moral or ethical guidance. In 2014, the clergy was broadened to be a representative of the non-profit sector.

So now the city’s policy is to appoint a committee of up to five people, including those three sectors, in the year of a general election, and they are charged with making recommendations for the incoming council’s four-year term. And just so you know, my name is going forward as a possible appointee to the Indemnity Review Committee.

Some people think the committee should have the power to just make the decision. That doesn’t work for a couple reasons. One is that we elect our council to make decisions; that’s their job and they can’t abrogate their responsibility. Second, how would we as taxpayers react if the committee decided to eliminate all compensation, or perhaps quadruple it, and council was forced to accept the direction of five unelected people? I don’t think that would be a happy day.

Instead, according to the policy, the committee will look at the workload “required, expected and undertaken” by council members. They’ll consider what comparable communities pay and whether inflationary increases are sufficient, or if the base stipend needs adjusting. They’ll also look at the benefits council members receive (e.g., extended health coverage or the technology allowance). And, of course, they’ll be aware of the impact of any changes on city taxes.

Throughout the process, two values are important. One is that council members should be compensated fairly and reasonably. Their job is far greater than attending two council meetings a month, and job stress can be very high. And, second, that the compensation is sufficient to attract a diversity of candidates — young people, small business owners, single parents, and others who aren’t wealthy or well-pensioned.

It’s important that the opportunity to serve is available and feasible for a wide range of citizens. It’s certainly a Nelson tradition to hold more than one job to make a living, but the demanding council job needs to pay enough to make that possible.

Bottom line: we want a diversity of thoughtful, well-intentioned people to govern us. Fair compensation won’t guarantee that, but it will help a lot.

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.