Following a lengthy discussion Thursday night, the Palm Springs City Council instructed city staff to explore multiple issues around future elected officials’ compensation.
On the table will be an exploration of increasing councilmembers’ salaries in line with inflation, providing support staff for them, offering increased vehicle and travel reimbursement, and possibly offering childcare options.
The discussion stemmed from the city’s California Voting Rights Act Working Group and its efforts to address the institutional barriers to running for public office in the city.
The current base pay for councilmembers is $29,196, pre-tax, which equates to less than minimum wage in California. That’s a salary that multiple councilmembers described Thursday evening as not enough for the job, especially if they’re not wealthy or retired and have to try to juggle a full-time job while being an acting councilmember.
“It is difficult to hold two full-time jobs that expect you to be there between nine to five, which is most jobs I have worked while I (also) worked full time at City Council for the majority of the time that I’ve been on Council,” said Mayor Pro Tem Grace Garner. “This year has been the first time where I’ve taken a little bit of a break from other work and that’s been very difficult. It was something that I had to plan extremely carefully, and I looked at my bank account even today and went, ‘oh my gosh.’
“I’m getting dangerously close to the point where I can’t have that luxury anymore, to only have the City Council position.”
Councilmembers discussed bringing the salary issue to residents to vote on later this year. Still, city staff cautioned against it, saying that the initiative would have to be rushed to completion to make it onto the upcoming ballot.
Councilmembers Christy Holstege and Geoff Kors both spoke about the need for councilmembers to have dedicated staff to respond to constituents’ requests more thoroughly. Both pointed to the sheer volume of emails they receive being difficult to get through.
Holstege added that the councilmembers were “woefully understaffed,” saying that having an assistant working for her this year was “life-changing.”
Holstege and Kors tied the issue of councilmembers’ pay and staffing to equity issues and whether lack of salary and support staff prevent a majority of working, more diverse people who aren’t wealthy or retired from serving the city.
Mayor Lisa Middleton said that one of the main reasons she’s able to serve as the mayor is because she earned a pension after working for the state of California for over three decades.
“It matters that the large populace within Palm Springs have an opportunity to feel that they can in fact serve our city, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Middleton said.
Most councilmembers were on board with adjusting future elected officials’ salaries or staffing. However, Councilmember Dennis Woods questioned whether a pay raise would attract a more diverse set of candidates.
“We had an all-gay lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender council, that’s pretty diverse,” he said. “We have men, we have women, we have (transgender) — I mean, that’s pretty diverse. We have old, and we have young. … What more diversity are we looking for? I’m not clear on that.”
Woods added the job of a councilmember in Palm Springs is fundamentally different than the job of councilmembers in Los Angeles or San Francisco. He said that councilmembers are expected to work full time in those cities, while in Palm Springs, the expectation is that councilmembers work only part-time.
“We are part-time,” Woods said. “We have a city manager form of government. We have our policy, as many of us have gone well beyond that. We’ve set an expectation level by doing that. And maybe that’s a false expectation level that you can call me about your trash, your pothole, and all this stuff, when I really can’t repair the pothole, I can only guide you to the place to get it repaired.”
Holstege also brought up the need for the city to provide childcare services for councilmembers and staff if the city wants to be a progressive city that hires its own residents and wants to diversify the city government.
“I very much think we benefit from people of color, women, working-class folks like teachers, firefighters — the people we want to be able to serve our city, and we just have to pay them,” Holstege said. “I’ve seen people in other cities leave because they just could not leave their city job because they just could not hold down being a city councilmember with a job. It’s just really, really difficult when you add on caretaking and all the other responsibilities.
“I think it’s really powerful and really important that we address this issue. We look and see the candidates that run and file intentions to run, and we don’t see a lot of diversity there. We need to see more diversity and who runs and who represents and serves the city.”