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Show them the money

This article originally appeared in City Weekly. Read it in its entirety here.

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?”

This article originally appeared in City Weekly. Read it in its entirety here.

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