The Fresno City Council didn’t surprise me when it voted 5-2 on Dec. 6 to change the salary formula for council members.
What does surprise me is the mixed message the council is sending regarding the necessity of its vote.
I wrote last week about the particulars of the new salary formula. The Dec. 6 vote to raise the annual salary of council members to $80,000 and that of the council president to $85,000 (a hike of about 20% in each case) was the first of two necessary votes. The second vote is scheduled for Dec. 13.
The 5-2 vote (Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier on the “no” side) is veto-proof. City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff on Monday told me Mayor Lee Brand would wait until the new ordinance arrives on his desk before deciding what to do. Mayors have been known to make a symbolic veto, knowing full well that their action will be overridden. Think of Mayor Jim Patterson’s veto on the Downtown Stadium after the construction bill passed on a 5-2 vote in late 2000. Patterson used his veto message to memorialize the reasons for his opposition (history in many ways has shown Patterson to have been right).
The raises would apply only to council members beginning a new term of office. For this reason, not everyone on the current council would get the raise.
“It’s the right thing to do for this body,” said Council Member Oliver Baines, who introduced the new formula and is termed out in January.
Said Council Member Garry Bredefeld of what council members do: “It’s a big job. It’s a big city. It’s a big responsibility.”
Baines’ original proposal included automatic raises in the future, the size determined by the size of raises received by Fresno County supervisors (themselves blessed to get automatic raises whenever certain judges get a raise).
Bredefeld asked Baines to remove that part of the proposal, saying it’s wrong for elected officials to shirk their duty to vote on pay raises each and every time in open session.
“We should be held accountable for our votes,” Bredefeld said.
Baines agreed to Bredefeld’s request without a hint of protest. That made me wonder if the tying of automatic council raises to the supervisors’ pay scale was political theater all along. You know what I’m talking about – a prearranged stratagem that enabled the council to pose as guardians of the public dime and the democratic process while, in the end, spending more public funds on council salaries.
Don’t get me wrong. I think council salaries should be raised. But the big question in such delicate situations is always one of justification. There are lots of possible explanations for such action. Throw too many at the public and it looks like one of those “doth protest too much” moments. Go the opposite direction and it looks like the council is cavalier with public sentiment.
That brings us to another vote during the Dec. 6 meeting. The council had to decide on a schedule of meetings during 2019. The item was on the consent calendar. Brandau pulled it for further discussion.
The council meets on Thursday. The proposed 2019 schedule had 29 meetings (not counting budget hearings in June) out of 52 Thursdays. Brandau proposed turning three “no meeting” Thursdays into meetings: March 14, April 25 and December 19.
Brandau’s logic: The council is Fresno’s policy-making body; many important issues come across the dais; cramming too many complex issues into a single meeting is exhausting to council members; the addition of more meetings will enable council members to give more time to reviewing staff reports in the days prior to a meeting and applying more energy to exploring issues on Thursdays in front of their constituents.
As to the exhaustion factor, Brandau said council members are human: “By the end of the day we’re really strained to pay attention to everything we should pay attention to.”
Brandau, a six-year veteran on the dais, noted something that long-time City Hall reporters have recognized: Every administration likes to cram a ton of important items into the end-of-calendar-year agendas.
“Today is a fine example,” Brandau said. “Next week (Dec. 13) is no different.”
Brandau’s motion passed unanimously.
Was it a coincidence that the council decided to work more scheduled meetings at the same meeting that it raised council salaries? I don’t know. I do know that in the course of a calendar year the council occasionally cancels a scheduled meeting. I also know that the council occasionally schedules a special meeting. Seems to me that if council members truly felt the Administration was overwhelming them with heavy agendas, they have more than enough power to do something about it at the actual moment rather than months in advance.
The high-profile addition of three meetings long before anyone knows if they’re necessary, along with the Bredefeld-Baines song-and-dance on the rejection of a formula for future council pay raises, gives off the aroma of political grandstanding. They seem designed to further justify the pay raises.
Which brings me to an interesting item on the Dec. 13 council agenda.
The council operates by a system of rules and procedures created and approved by majority vote. Council members run their operation pretty much the way they want to.
Brandau this Thursday is proposing that Rule No. 6 – “Council Agenda” – be amended. Section C of Rule 6 says: “Each Councilmember shall place no more than two items on the Agenda. Consent items and proclamations are excepted from this rule.”
Brandau wants to add: “There shall be no more than four proclamations per meeting, and they shall be placed on the Agenda on a first-come-first-served basis.”
It has been my experience that many Fresnans, individually or in groups, do things that enhance civic life in our fair city and are deserving of official City Hall recognition. Is there the possibility that in 2019 there will be more than 128 (4 x 32) legitimate opportunities to honor the good and the successful? I say yes. You’ve got to figure that 12 of those opportunities will be the SPCA Pet of the Month.
Not everyone on the council in 2019 will be making $80,000 a year. But that’s almost certainly where we’re headed in due time.
Perhaps the well-paid and hardly overworked Fresno City Council doesn’t need to make it official policy that it will limit the number of times City Hall will officially honor deserving Fresnans.
You know – those folks who will pay those big new salaries.