Council Cares for Itself With a Generous Hand
The issue of compensation and outside compensation for Council Members is one that has been around a long time, and will continue to be a subject of contention.
I first became involved in it when I was elected to the Council in November 1973, and saw my salary drop from the $32,000 or so I was earning as first deputy commissioner of consumer affairs to the $20,000 that Council Members were paid at the time. Nonetheless I was happy to make the change, for the honor of being an elected official, for the opportunity to speak my mind, for four years’ tenure rather than serving at the pleasure of the commissioner or mayoral aides, and for the chance, I believed to influence policy in the City of New York.
The last reason turned out to be delusional. Mayor Beame and Majority Leader Cuite were not in the least interested in any suggestions from the lone Liberal member of the Council, or even from the young Democrats elected like Robert F. Wagner, Jr., my fellow Councilman-at-Large from Manhattan. But the job was still a great pleasure and challenge, and I would have taken it for a lesser salary.
The greatest impediment to our work was the limitation on Council aides, which at the time I entered the Council, was $7,500 a year, which could be divided into no more than five slices. The general idea was to allow a Council Member to appoint a part-time staff member at $1,500 per year, one from each political club in his district, to represent him at their meetings, to carry requests from club members, and to secure support for the Councilman for giving patronage to the political club. I understand that that sum has since multiplied about 40 times, far surpassing the rate of inflation.
We want to subscribe to and incorporate by reference the thoughtful testimony of Dick Dadey on behalf of Citizens Union before the Council Government Operations Committee on Council members compensation last week. We agree with the analysis of the situation that it is possible to have a middle ground between allowing no outside earned income and allowing members to pursue other occupations without limitations on time or compensation.
It is also a ridiculous practice to create subcommittees without limit just to make sure that each member on the majority side receives a lulu. Although the condition is not as bad as it was a generation ago, when salaries for committee chairs varied by increments of $500, and chairs were awarded based on seniority, geography and loyalty to the leadership of the Council (termed ‘reliability’).
The struggle to reform the Council began before it was formed in 1938. For a while proportional representation led to more qualified members representing broader points of view. The old-line political machines succeeded in repealing PR based on the Red Scare in the early part of the Cold War.
The abolition of Council Members-at-Large by the Federal courts has left the Council even less representative than it was. Ethnic diversity is highly desirable, but it should not be confused with diversity of opinion. But that is not the fault of any of the Council Members, any more than term limits, which I happen to believe are desirable, can be blamed on the incumbents.
If the salary is tied to any other figure, it should not be the cost of living, but the city’s deficit.
Budgets must now be balanced according to generally accepted accounting principles, but deficits lurk off the books and in crevices only limited by the technical ability of budgeteers, which is great.
Just as corporate salaries are linked to corporate performance, it would be interesting to relate council salaries to how well the city is doing under the legislative leadership. This may be more than the Council can handle, it is offered as an alternative to raises by inflation.
The limitation on outside earned income is a thorny issue on which I am less certain than I was when I was so much younger than today. There is no limit on rents, interest, dividends or any other form of unearned income, which means the rich can get richer while they hold public office. At the same time, the practice of Council Members spending close to full time furthering their private commercial interests and coming to work for meetings only, usually to say ‘aye’ or raise their hands at the scripted moment, is unsettling. Where and how to draw the line on outside income is a difficult question, as well as the issue of whether it should be drawn at all.
I appreciate the committee actually holding a hearing on this issue, and I hope the result is fuller consideration of how to change the current climate of periodic spasms of self-enrichment. Existing practices in this area do
justice neither to elected officials, part timers or full timers, nor to the citizen-taxpayers who provide their emoluments.