‘This is about access to democracy for me’: Salt Lake City Council votes to increase its own pay in an effort to encourage diversity of representation

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune ) The City County Building on June 28, 2018.

The Salt Lake City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to increase each member’s part-time salary from $26,291 a year to $35,925 starting at the beginning of next year.

The increase is the first beyond yearly annual cost-of-living increases in 37 years and was promoted by council members as a way to ensure people from across the economic spectrum are represented on the body.

“This is entry-level elected office,” said Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall before casting a vote in support of the pay increase. “Every single person in my district should have the opportunity to serve here without it costing their family. That’s what this is about. This is about access to democracy for me.”

A previous council turned down a proposal within the past decade to increase the council’s compensation and never reconsidered the issue. And the political awkwardness of raising your own salary means the council’s pay has lost pace with its full-time mayor’s, which has increased at a rate 97 percent faster than the council’s since the city’s form of government changed in 1979.

Council salaries were initially meant to match the mayor’s in a 4-to-1 ratio, with council members expected to spend about 10 hours a week on their duties. The increase approved Tuesday will bring their pay back in line with that ratio.

“A big part of the problem — and the reason we have that lack of parity and are now in the position we’re in — is because of political people like myself who have argued against it in the past because it is an unpopular thing to do — we don’t want to be on record as supporting a compensation increase for ourselves,” said Councilman Charlie Luke, who said he has previously spoken against a pay raise, but supported it Tuesday night.

Cindy Gust-Jenson, the executive director of the City Council, told council members during a presentation on the pay increase at the end of November that the expectations for their positions have changed drastically over the years. The number of community councils in most districts has ballooned, council members are expected to sit on multiple boards and new challenges posed by growth, the inland port and homelessness issues take increased amounts of time, while pay has stagnated.

Salt Lake City resident George Chapman was one of two people who spoke during a public hearing before the vote on Tuesday night. Chapman spoke out against the pay increases, arguing that council members need to put more money toward better compensating police officers and maintaining failing city streets.

“I respect your public service,” he said. “And you do spend a lot of time on stuff that’s important to me and a lot of other people. Thank you. But I do not agree with increasing your salary right now. I want somebody on the council that when they run for council, they don’t think they’re going to get paid.”

But Robert Goodman, the other Salt Lake City resident who spoke on the pay increase during the hearing, spoke in favor of the move, saying he hoped it would bring more young voices onto the council.

“I think [the pay increase is] incentivizing kind of diversity of both age, demographic and walks of life on the City Council, as well as encouraging people who rent potentially being on City Council,” he said. “… I think it’s a just move and I’m a homeowner who pays taxes and I can say that.”