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Council remuneration a double-edged sword

Posted on December 14, 2016 by Taber Times

It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest most citizens probably take a dim view of their elected officials voting themselves a raise. Based purely on optics alone, politicians can’t be blamed for attempting to take a hands-off approach to any enhancements to their own remuneration.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise town council has struck a three-person member-at-large committee to consider council remuneration, and is currently seeking candidates from the community to fill the role. What is also hardly surprising is that despite having advertised the committee for a month, no citizens have stepped forward interested in taking on the role. While tempted to chock up disinterest to simple apathy amongst the citizenry, unfortunately serving on this kind of committee comes as something of a double-edged sword.

To serve on the committee and recommend a significant increase in rates of remuneration for councillors, and you would no doubt be subject to public criticism for being too closely aligned with council, or too weak willed to oppose political pressure.

Recommend holding the line at the status quo, and risk potentially losing the goodwill of one’s elected officials, or being accused of being too miserly with your official’s salaries. Usually there’s a distinct lack of being able to arrive at a happy medium in these types of sticky situations. Admittedly, on whatever side of the fiscal coin a citizen representative might fall, there are potentially a number of unattractive consequences which might make the role less than inviting.

Attempting to create the committee, however, has one unrefutable redeeming quality, certainly from the perspective of town council — it allows them to deflect the responsibility of having to consider personally voting themselves a raise without public scrutiny, and if no one is found to serve, it allows them to claim due diligence. On the surface it all appears to be above board, but the fly in the proverbial ointment is that striking a committee is one thing, and filling it with willing citizens appears to be something else altogether.

As for due diligence, if no one is found willing to serve on the committee, this is also to the advantage of town council. Such an eventuality allows councillors to use this as apathy ammunition — no one came forward to serve, so no one must care — when they later decide to increase their own remuneration. Transversely, and to their credit, councillors can hardly campaign for certain individuals to serve on the committee, as this could amount to stacking it with representatives who might be favourable to a significant increase, with impending ethical concerns about conflict of interest.

The committee — should it be filled — will also be tasked with the consideration of medical benefits for town councillors, an idea endorsed by Councillor Ross-Giroux and Councillor Brewin. Should it be implemented, it is expected this would cost taxpayers in the range of an annual additional $30,000.

Although likely to elicit howling objections from councillors, serving as an elected official at the town, county, or village level is largely what amounts to a part-time job — most of which do not pay benefits, at least in the private sector. Ultimately the question of whether the taxpayer should be forced to foot this bill is likely to be controversial.

Over and above the bean-counting aspects of considering a pay increase for town council is the overarching philosophy of who we wish to have serve us in this community. And that philosophy can to a large degree be shaped by financial considerations.

In the employment world, it is often considered to be attractive for recruitment purposes if your rates of remuneration are at “market” for comparable positions.

But in the world of municipally-elected office — certainly at the town, village or county level — this idea gets flipped on its head. There are few voters who are likely to be attracted to an individual candidate if there is some suspicion as to why they are running in the first place. If rates of remuneration become so high that the position has now become attractive for more grasping, avaristic reasons, then this suspicion only escalates exponentially among the voting public.

Fortunately, we have a measure of control over this possibility. Keeping rates of remuneration to a rigid minimum — largely a stipend — almost ensures that the right kind of candidates will apply for the job. Do we want to vote for individuals who we know are dedicated to serving the community regardless of financial considerations, or do we want a situation where that previously-established fact has been significantly undermined?

Travelling too far down the remuneration highway could lead us to a place where we are left questioning the motives of candidates for higher office, rather than a more universal acceptance of their motives that can often be fostered by limiting rates of pay.

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