Columns » Outsider




"It is more blessed to give than to receive ... "

Not sure of the origin of that noble old saw, but its author must not have had certain local elected officials in mind. Let us do a little contrast and compare, and examine our City Council, and our county commissioners.

Not much difference on the surface. They even kind of look alike; a total of 14 perfectly nice, average to slightly overweight, moderately well-dressed, 50ish, middle-class men and women. They all have nice offices, no fixed hours of employment, and they all profess to be fiscal conservatives. They're all devoted to our fair city and county -- just concerned citizens doing their best, not (horrors!) professional politicians.

There's not a lot of difference in job descriptions, either. In each case, elected officials simply make policy for local governments; the actual work is done by professional managers. And the governments themselves pretty much mirror each other as well: public safety, transportation, parks, human services and the like.

But there's one massive difference -- money.

City Council members can fairly claim to be citizen volunteers, undertaking a complex and difficult job without significant compensation, other than the satisfaction that comes from contributing to your community. They're not paid in any meaningful sense, receiving only a charter-mandated stipend of $6,250 annually. No bennies -- no retirement, no health care, no nuthin'. Despite this, service on City Council has attracted bright and capable people: Bob Isaac, Mary Lou Makepeace and Leon Young -- all extraordinarily gifted politicians. Jim Null, Ted Eastburn, Sallie Clark, Richard Skorman and Judy Noyes -- all accomplished, successful members of the community.

Why do we pay our Council members so little? It wasn't always so; indeed, when the city was first organized, its elected representatives, then called aldermen, were well paid: $750 annually, $1,000 for the mayor. Not much now, but a pretty good salary in 1895, when you could buy a house for a thousand bucks or so.

In 1924, "reformers" pushed through a charter change, which led to the adoption of the city manager form of government. The policy-setters would henceforth be unpaid, and a professional manager would run the city.

The "reformers" of the time thereby accomplished two goals: to professionalize city government, and to keep working-class people out of municipal government. Indeed, the whole national movement toward the city manager form of government was driven by the fear that small cities would be taken over by working-class voters. And then, just like in New York or Boston, municipal governments all over the country would become corrupt and inefficient, vote-buying mechanisms for the Democratic Party. In other words, immigrants and furriners were gonna take over City Hall!!!

Since Colorado Springs is a home rule city, we can, under state law, organize our municipal government as we see fit. Whether Council members are paid or not is a matter for citizens to decide. But since the county is, theoretically, a political subdivision of the state, our Legislature determines their salaries. And thanks to that body, our five commissioners have what are arguably the best jobs in Colorado politics.

Here's what you'd make, if you were elected to the county commission. Your base salary would be -- Are you sitting down? -- $63,203 per annum. And remember, you don't even have to show up for work every day -- just go to the occasional meeting, meet with constituents from time, and give speeches. You can even keep your old job -- lawyer, real estate broker, whatever. And hey, there are bennies, too. According to the County Finance Department, the value of those bennies amounts to 24 percent of the base salary, bringing the grand total to -- Are you still sitting down? -- $78,371 a year!! Plus, if you consent to serve for two terms, eight years in this hellishly "difficult" job, then you get a modest pension: $936 per month for the rest of your life.

No wonder former City Councilman Bill Guman and former GOP chairman Wayne Williams are gonna run! No wonder the Republican Party so prizes its local monopoly on the political job market! These are the kind of jobs that Jimmy Hoffa used to hand out: no-show, big money, and funded by the taxpayers. And there's not one thing any of us can do about it, except this: Next November, we can at least insist that would-be commissioners make two simple promises:

To quit their existing nonpolitical jobs.

To work as commissioners eight hours a day, five days a week.

Doesn't seem like much, for almost 80 grand a year -- but I'll bet none of the Republicans will do it.

Unlike those no-good, working-class Dems ...

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