Over the weekend, as results of the Dallas City Council election runoffs rolled in, I couldn’t shake a cynical reaction to the end of what felt like a very prolonged campaign season: why would anyone want a job as a city council member?
Being a member of the Dallas City Council is a thankless position. It is more than a fulltime job; requires tangling with both local politics and the impossible bureaucracy of Dallas City Hall; and even the most unflappable, talented, and idealistic city council members find it difficult to enact real and meaningful change. For their services, city council members receive a salary of $60,000, which, while substantially higher than the city’s median salary, is either a big pay cut or a bonus token to most who run for office. The $80,000 mayoral salary was such an afterthought to Mayor Mike Rawlings that he donated it to charity. The salary wasn’t enough to keep Mayor Eric Johnson from accepting a gig as a partner with a large law firm not long after taking office rather than making being mayor his only job.
And yet, this election cycle saw many Dallas residents working hard – and spending tons of campaign dollars – to try to get into office. As I reported in my (admittedly incomplete) analysis of some of this cycle’s campaign spending, some candidates for council spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their campaigns, with district 13 candidate Leland Burk outspending all others. Burk came up short in his runoff, which, regardless of how you felt about Burk as a candidate, at least shows that council seats can’t be bought outright. There’s still a neighbor-to-neighbor scale to local politics that candidates must respect. But then again, not all neighbors can afford to run for city council.
Being able to afford to run means different things to different candidates. It may mean having the means to forgo the paycheck that comes with full-time employment for a few years while in office. For others, it means the council salary fits your expected standard of living. Speaking generally, that creates a few typical candidate profiles. Some are well-off; others own their own businesses or work in profession that allow the time for – or are benefited by – a council member who remains on staff while dedicating a substantial chunk of their time to a city hall gig. There are also those for whom the long-range upside of being a council member may bring hope of some future windfall. Sadly, we’ve seen this at play in the corruption convictions that have taken down a few council members in recent years.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with someone in the local development community about Dallas’ system of government when the question of council pay came up. The developer floated an idea: what if we paid Dallas City Council members substantially more money, like well into the six-figures money?
At first, that might seem like a terrible idea. There is already too much money in politics – why inject more? But if you step back, there are certain advantages. The current pay scale and workload of the city council ensures that only Dallas residents from certain professional backgrounds or particular points in their career run for office. There are also kinds of people who don’t run. They tend to be upwardly mobile professionals, often well-educated, who are invested in their city but also in their careers. Stepping away from a career to pursue a council seat is often a financial impossibility.
But what if Dallas bumped the salary to, say, $100,000? Would that dramatically change the profile of candidates who enter local races? I started digging around to see if there was any precedent for this in cities around the country. I found two things.
The first is that I’m not the first person to raise the idea of paying council members more. In fact, I’m not even the first writer with D Magazine to propose this approach to local government reform. I had forgotten that back in 2014, Eric Celeste wrote a column for this magazine that proposed raising council pay to $100,000. His argument was timed to the upcoming city charter review, which is mandated by the city’s charter every 10 years. Here’s the nut of Eric’s argument:
Council-manager single-member systems will always be messy, the thinking goes, but they can be smart messy—if you can attract the right kind of people to the job with decent pay.
Who are the right kind of people? Working parents. It’s rare to see them on the council. That’s why you mostly get empty-nesters and weirdos trying to run the city. Working parents are the backbone of a city. They’re still young and dumb enough to think they can make a difference and yet still focused on the betterment of someone other than themselves—the next generation. They would make perfect council members.
Other cities realize this. A 2011 survey of 15 major U.S. cities (some of this may have changed; check your Google for updates) showed Dallas one up from the bottom of pay scale, above only San Antonio. Five cities paid their council members more than $100,000, eight paid more than $75,000.
That leads me to the second thing I found out: since Eric wrote this piece, San Antonio has raised council pay. In 2015, San Antonians passed a resolution that increased council member pay from $1,040-per-year – essentially a volunteer token – to $45,722 annually. That’s about $22 an hour, or less than $7/hour more than what an MIT study determined to be the average “living wage” for a single adult (roughly $32,000 a year before tax). And yet, that still set San Antonio council salaries higher than what Dallas paid council members at the time when Eric wrote his piece.
But Eric’s argument did have traction. The 2014 charter review boosted elected representative pay, and Dallas council salaries rose from $37,500 to $60,000, and the mayor’s salary went from $60,000 to $80,000.
That’s not an insignificant increase, and in the years since that pay increase, we have seen the diversity of candidates running for local office increase – evidence that paying elected officials more can improve their quality. But why stop at $60,000? If you take this Purdue University study from 2019 at face value, then you need to make $113,000 a year to “be happy” in Dallas. The study also argues that you need to make at least between $64,620 and $80,775 to get to a point where money no longer has a major effect on one’s emotional well-being. I would argue that serving as a council member is already a threat to one’s emotional well-being, even before salaries are taken into consideration. Why make it more difficult for them?
Across the largest 25 cities in the United States, there is a wide range of elected official compensation. A survey conducted by the Detroit Free Press in 2015 found that the median salary in the top 25 cities was $70,075, which is what Austin council members make. The average salary across the 25 cities was $96,781. Some of the top earners were Chicago council members, who made $113,814 in 2015. Washington, D.C., council members made $137,990, and Seattle reps made $117,533. Representatives in some cities that are smaller and more affordable than Dallas also make more, such as Cleveland ($76,259), Milwaukee ($73,222) and Baltimore ($64,491). Houston’s council salaries are similar to Dallas’ at $62,983.
But here’s the thing. Dallas’ city charter was written at a time when the council was conceived of as basically another civic board to be populated by white-haired White businessmen who volunteered their time to ensure the professional, business-like running of the city. But Dallas politics have, thankfully, evolved past that vision. Council members are now in the trenches, working to respond to neighborhood needs, untangle a broken permitting system, determine how to solve a generational challenge to social equity, boost employment opportunities, create new strategies for affordable housing, fix parking and zoning, improve transportation, and all the other pressing issues that require more than a full-time job to accomplish.
We need the best people we can get for these vital jobs, and if that means offering the kind of compensation that will draw new and talented candidates from diverse cultural, social, and professional backgrounds, then it is public money well spent. This is not a slight on our new council. Many of them demonstrate why the role deserves more pay, and I believe few would argue that when you break that $60,000 down to an hourly rate, their pay wouldn’t look like much more than the minimum living wage.
Plus, as Eric pointed out seven years ago, increasing council pay isn’t a huge public expense when taken in context of the city’s overall budget and compensation for other city officials:
We’re talking about a total increase of about $900,000 paid to 15 people. To put that in perspective, have a look at the annual compensation of Phillip Jones, the head of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2011, he made $508,000. It was a down year for him. In 2010, he made almost $550,000.