Pat Washburn has thought about running for the Portland City Council, but when she considers the time she’d have to sacrifice from her day job, it doesn’t seem feasible.

“I would have to take too much time away from my career to do a good job of listening to the voters, studying the issues that come before the council and attending the meetings,” said Washburn, who works as a technical writer for a cybersecurity company. “You can’t just go into the meetings with general knowledge. You have to know what you’re doing.”

The responsibilities of the job and the desire to attract candidates from all backgrounds – including those who might not find the work required affordable – are the reasons Washburn, who serves on the city’s Charter Commission, has proposed increasing the pay of city councilors.

Councilors currently earn a stipend of $6,947 annually, plus benefits including health insurance, and have the ability to set their own pay as long as increases don’t take place in the same municipal year. They’re also eligible for annual cost-of-living increases, and an increase of 2 percent or 3 percent is often considered during the annual budget process, said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

Washburn’s proposal would set a new minimum for the stipend, significantly raising it to a rate of 1.35 times the state or city’s minimum hourly wage, whichever is lower, multiplied by 20 hours per week for each week in office. At the current state minimum wage of $12.75, that would translate to an annual stipend of about $17,900. Councilors could also refuse payment or could set a higher stipend.

The proposal was approved 3-1 by the commission’s procedures committee on Feb. 8 and is now being considered by the full commission. Any changes to city government that the commission ultimately recommends will need to be approved by voters to be enacted.

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“The proposals coming before the city deal in major issues, complex issues involving finance and development and government – and I would like to see that being recognized as work that is worthy of pay, just like being a cook in a restaurant or managing a store,” Washburn said.

Proponents of increasing pay say a higher annual stipend would better reflect the reality of the job – which can add up to 20 to 40 hours of work per week – and make it easier for a more diverse slate of candidates to hold public office. Critics say serving as a councilor has always been about civic duty, not compensation, and the city has more pressing spending priorities.

WHAT DO OTHER CITIES DO?

Approaches to elected officials’ pay vary widely around the country. The National League of Cities, an advocacy group made up of municipal leaders, last summer analyzed pay for elected officials in 15 communities in seven states in response to a debate in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, similar to the one in Portland.

“We often get a question like this,” said James Brooks, director of infrastructure for the league, when he was asked about how Portland’s council salaries compare to those in other cities. “Cities like to know where they are in terms of the compensation for their elected officials. There is no regular survey that tracks this, and so most of them don’t have the data on their own.”

The cities the league looked at ranged in size from DeSoto, Texas, with a population of 53,000, to Oklahoma City, at 643,900. Brockton, Massachusetts, with 95,594 residents, was the only New England city included in the league’s analysis.

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The average pay for council members, aldermen and commissioners across the surveyed communities was $14,136. The maximum was $34,005 in Las Cruces, New Mexico (population 102,102), and the minimum was $2,700 in Victoria, Texas (population 67,670).

“There is certainly not consistency,” Brooks said. “There is very localized decision-making on what political office holders should make and how they should earn it, whether it’s a salary or a stipend for participation, etc. There is no uniformity, even within a state.”

Washburn said she also looked at other cities and found a wide range of pay rates and approaches.

She said she didn’t look at other communities in Maine since Portland stands apart given its size. “I think in a smaller place it’s much easier to do it as a volunteer job or semi-volunteer job that’s tacked on to a full-time career,” Washburn said.

In Bangor, city councilors make $2,000 per year and the council chair earns an additional $500. In Lewiston, councilors earn a $4,000 stipend.

THINKING ABOUT EQUITY

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While the Portland council already has the ability to increase its own pay, Washburn said there’s a stigma attached to doing so. She said her proposal – coming from someone who’s not on the council and isn’t planning on running – would make it easier for those who might be hesitant to seek office for financial reasons.

“I don’t want to create a princely salary that would attract people that just want money,” she said. “I just want to recognize this is work and it is work worthy of pay.”

When the Charter Commission’s procedures committee met last month to discuss the proposal, Commission Chair Michael Kebede, who voted in favor, agreed with Washburn that a larger stipend would make it easier for working-class people to run.

“I think the notion civic duty should be uncompensated is a very noble one – but when you’re working three jobs to feed multiple kids, let’s say, the nobility behind uncompensated civic duty kind of goes away,” Kebede said. “I think this is one good way around it.”

He said Maine’s elected officials in general are often paid less than in other states. Gov. Janet Mills, for example, earns $70,000, which as of 2020 was the lowest salary for any governor in the U.S.

Brooks, from the National League of Cities, said he personally hasn’t done research on whether increasing the salaries of elected officials increases diversity or makes it easier for working people to run for office, but he pointed to a 2016 study from the American Political Science Review. The study, which looked at state legislatures around the U.S., found that representation by the working class was the same or worse in states that paid lawmakers higher salaries.

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The study said that raising legislative salaries beyond $0 may make it more feasible for lower-income and working people to hold office, but further increasing salaries eventually makes holding office more attractive to white-collar professionals.

“Higher salaries don’t seem to make political office more attractive to workers; they seem to make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high salaries,” wrote the study’s authors. “According to our data, paying politicians more doesn’t seem to promote economic diversity.”

WHAT DO COUNCILORS THINK?

Portland councilors had a wide range of opinions on the pay increase proposal. But they all agreed on one point: They put in way more hours than the public probably realizes or than they themselves imagined they would before they were elected.

Councilor April Fournier, an early childhood support specialist at Maine Medical Center’s pediatric clinic, said she spends 30 to 40 hours per week on council work between answering constituent emails, attending committee and council meetings and workshops and researching issues. She said she hadn’t seen the wording of the charter commission’s proposal but is supportive of the spirit of the idea.

“When you say it’s a privilege (to be on the council) and you don’t need to be compensated, you’re automatically excluding people who make less than what the median income is,” Fournier said. “This isn’t just about the council wanting to make more money, it’s about creating equity in this position so we can have more representation of the population we serve.”

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Councilor Pious Ali, who works for the nonprofit Portland Empowered, stopped short of support for the charter commission proposal, but said he trusts commissioners to make a good decision and he sees how increased compensation could be a benefit. “Around the country there’s a movement trying to diversify the number of people from different backgrounds who will have the opportunity to serve,” Ali said. “One of the things getting in the way is their ability to support themselves while serving. Public service should not be the privilege of only those that can afford it.”

“It’s too much money,” said Councilor Mark Dion, an attorney and former sheriff, when asked about the commission proposal. He said he looks at the position as a civic duty, not a principal source of income. “I don’t know what to say other than to go from $6,000 to $18,000, I couldn’t in good conscience argue for that,” Dion said. “We have people with no place to sleep tonight but I’m going to advocate for tripling of my pay?”

Councilor Tae Chong also said he believes the money could be better spent on other things, like the needs of the large numbers of homeless people the city is currently sheltering. “I just think it’s disingenuous to say we care about the community and take money away from the most vulnerable, when there are people willing to serve on a volunteer basis,” said Chong, who works as director of multicultural markets and strategies for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Chong said the council, as well as the school board and charter commission, are already diverse and include people under age 40, people of color and people who haven’t held office before. “To say those barriers are so hard when in reality it’s the complete opposite, to ask for more money or more layers of government, it’s just disingenuous and not true,” Chong said.

But Andrew Zarro, who is 33 and among the youngest members of the council, said it hasn’t been easy to balance his roles as a small-business owner and an elected official. “How are we going to get people even younger than me? Or a student? Or people who want to be involved and can contribute but at the end of the day need to be financially compensated for this hard work?” Zarro said. “This is not a part-time position. It could not be further from that.”


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