Alameda Mayor, City Council Earn Little
Elected civil servants in Alameda aren’t compensated handsomely for their service, which some fear may limit the pool for candidates.
Illustration by Heather Hardison
Do you know how much members of the Alameda City Council earn for their service? A random sample of a dozen Alamedans questioned on the street suggested most people don’t. Some folks had “absolutely no idea.” Others guessed $40,000 to $60,000 annually. One person hazarded $200,000. Only former Encinal High School principal Mike Cooper, who co-owns 1400 Bar & Grill, knew the sobering truth, but then again, he should, given that he used to be a government affairs teacher.
Most people assume that Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer makes big bucks. “Sometimes people get a little upset with me, suggesting that I’m paid quite a bit of money for doing this, and I have to figure out a way to gently let them know that, actually, no, this is like an extension of my volunteer work,” she said. “Others think these rates should be increased. They are shocked that we get paid so little for what we do. The truth is, I get paid $300 a month, and the city council members get paid $100 a month.”
Alameda’s human resources manager Jill Kovacs explained the numbers: “It’s $50 per meeting attended, limited to two paid meetings per month, and if council members only attend one meeting, they only make $50,” Kovacs said. The mayor receives a $200 monthly stipend plus the monthly $100 meeting fee, for a total of $300 a month. With perfect attendance, that works out to $1,200 per year per councilmember and $3,600 annually for the mayor.
Additionally, city council members, including the mayor, receive a $110.98 monthly mileage allowance and are reimbursed for attending conferences, and they are all eligible for health benefits. Alameda city councilmembers who serve on three boards and commissions earn stipends for that service: $150 per meeting for being on the Alameda County Lead Abatement Joint Powers Authority Board; $225 per meeting plus $25 travel per diem for the Alameda County Transportation Commission; and $150 per meeting up to $450 per month for the StopWaste.org Alameda County Waste Management Authority. Such stipends are not that unusual. In Alameda, the mayor makes nominations to these boards and commissions and the city council decides whether to approve the appointments. Currently, Spencer serves on two and as an alternate on the third of the paying commissions.
How do Alameda mayoral and city council salaries compare? The compensation varies greatly among similar-sized cities. According to California’s state government code, city councils may enact ordinances so mayors and councilmembers receive salaries based on their city’s population. For cities with 50,000 to 75,000 residents, the state recommends $500 per month. For cities with 75,000 to 100,000 residents, the state suggests $600 per month. Alameda’s population is about 76,000 residents. State code also allows city council salaries to be increased up to 5 percent per year by amendment.
Alameda, however, is a charter city and therefore its city council and mayoral compensation is set by its city charter and does not have to adhere to state recommendations, Kovacs said. Other charter cities about the same size as Alameda include Napa, Mountain View, and San Leandro.
According to the California State Controllers Office website, in 2013, the most recent year for which statewide statistics are available, when then-Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore was paid $3,323 annually to represent Alameda and its estimated 76,419 residents, her charter city peers earned substantially more annually: $35,860 in Napa, population 78,358; $8,924 in Mountain View, with 76,781 residents; and $25,074 in San Leandro, population 87,691.
“To change any of this would take amendments to the charter, because there is nothing that trumps the charter,” Kovacs said of the pay structure. “And those rates have been in place for decades.”
The Alameda city charter was adopted in 1907, and councilmembers served then without compensation. In 1947, the charter was amended to pay councilmembers $20 per meeting for a monthly maximum of $40. The charter was amended in 1970 to give the mayor a $200 monthly stipend, compensating for being a directly elected mayor when, previously, the duties had rotated among city councilmembers. The last revision to the charter came in 1977 when it was amended to reflect the current meeting rate, and the established mayoral stipend was maintained.
When that mayor’s stipend of $200 was established, by the way, the Vietnam War was still raging, Perry Mason was on television at night, and a townhouse in Alameda went for $62,500, according to a March 1971 issue of the Alameda-Times Star. Terry Y. LaCroix Jr., Alameda’s first directly elected mayor, and his wife invited citizens to a Sunday afternoon open house “to meet your Mayor at their home: 920 Grand Street.” That property, built in 1907, is now worth an estimated $1.2 million.
Why such low mayoral pay, especially in Alameda, where in 2013, according to the state controller’s office, the average city employee wage was $61,583 and the city manager made $233,048?
“We have what’s called a ‘strong-city manager’ system,” Spencer said, noting that the city council approves the city manager’s salary, which is determined through contract negotiations and staff recommendations and includes cost of living adjustments.
Changing city council pay requires amending the charter, which can be done in two ways, said Alameda City Clerk Lara Weisiger. A charter amendment can be placed on the ballot by three councilmembers who vote in favor of a proposed measure. Or residents can qualify a citizen initiative, which requires gathering a minimum of 15 percent of signatures from Alameda voters based on the number recorded in the most recent report of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters to the California Secretary of State. For instance, to qualify an initiative for the 2016 election in Alameda would require at least 6,601 signatures, which is 15 percent of the 44,006 Alameda voters reported in the 2014 general election. Both ballot initiatives require a 50 percent plus one vote in favor of the measure to pass, Weisiger noted.
Some prospective city council candidates are surprised by the little pay they would get for their service, Weisiger said. “I tell candidates, ‘Basically, you know you are volunteering?’ ” She walks candidates through the details when they file to run for office. “Sometimes they know. Sometimes they are, ‘Really?’ Usually, it’s the newer candidates that are shocked.”
City Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said she was “mildly shocked” to discover the poor compensation when she ran for council in 2011. “But I didn’t do this for the money,” said Ezzy Ashcraft, who works part time as an arbitrator for the Better Business Bureau. “But other people considering running for office might say, ‘I can’t afford to do it.’ ”
Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese and councilmembers Tony Daysog and Jim Oddie hold down jobs outside the council. Serving as a councilmember requires considerable time and effort, they all agree.
“My husband would tell you that I almost work it like a full-time job,” Ezzy Ashcraft said. “Some really meaty packages have come before the board, especially concerning Alameda Point. I can easily spend eight hours preparing for a meeting, e-mailing, and talking to staff. Plus I like to meet constituents, and you need to make appearances at events.”
Matarrese said he hasn’t kept a log of the hours he puts in each month, but they include attending council meetings, constituent and staff meetings, liaison committee meetings, and public events as well as answering e-mails. “I have my own business, so I can flex my day job around these,” he said. “In 2004 I found it was pretty much impossible to keep up when I worked full time at Chiron.”
Spencer, a lawyer who is not employed, said she puts in at least 40 hours a week as mayor. “I go into the office almost daily,” Spencer said. “I go to meetings, city events, ribbon cuttings; I meet with members of the public regularly; quite often with the staff and myself.”
Spencer said she is “delighted” to be mayor but said low pay could deter prospective candidates. “For myself, it’s such a huge honor to be mayor that we are sacrificing fiscally to do it, but there would be many good candidates who would not consider it because of fiscal reasons, which is unfortunate,” she said.
Ezzy Ashcraft said people need to ask if they would be willing—and able—to work as an elected city official in Alameda as a volunteer. “Would you do all this work, spend all this time, and take all this criticism for $100 a month?” she asked.
The low compensation issue, Spencer said, hasn’t been on the council’s agenda since she became mayor last fall.
“But if cost of living amendments could have been included in the past, that might have made a big difference,” she said. “And if there was a way to add language to modify council pay to reflect the cost of living, that might be worth considering.”
To be successful, Ezzy Ashcraft said, an amendment would require council unity and noted that more lucrative pay could lead to a more representative council.
“If you knew that most of the council would go along with it, you’d be more likely to bring it up,” Ezzy Ashcraft said. “I think that if there was more substantive compensation, more people would run. We want to attract dedicated candidates, and we don’t want to limit that pool. We would be better served as a community if we opened the field to all levels.”
Alameda officials don’t earn much for their service.