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No rules, considerable consequences: the difficult issue of council pay and diversity in public office

Voting for higher salaries puts councils in an awkward position while low wages can be a barrier to diverse representation

By Shannon Waters
September 7, 2022
City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

No rules, considerable consequences: the difficult issue of council pay and diversity in public office

Voting for higher salaries puts councils in an awkward position while low wages can be a barrier to diverse representation

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

No rules, considerable consequences: the difficult issue of council pay and diversity in public office

Voting for higher salaries puts councils in an awkward position while low wages can be a barrier to diverse representation

By Shannon Waters
September 7, 2022
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No rules, considerable consequences: the difficult issue of council pay and diversity in public office
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

With the cost of living currently rising faster than it has in decades, the issue of low council compensation preventing some people from pursuing public office is a live one—and it does not only affect incumbents.

Saanich councillor Rebecca Mersereau announced in mid-August that she had decided against seeking re-election for “varied and complex” reasons that include the demands of the job—Mersereau also serves on the Capital Regional District’s Board of directors—and the local cost of living.

“What I hope people take from it is that, ‘Wow, someone of working age who has three jobs and has a good salary doesn't really see the future here that they want,‘” she told Capital Daily. “There's really something amiss here.”

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Judith Cullington, a former two-term Colwood councillor, shared her experience with council wages at a meeting last month where a significant pay raise for the city’s next council was being debated. Cullington said she would have run for a third term but could not afford it.

“The wages just were simply not there to make it happen,” she told council. “I want to be looking at a lovely sea of faces [at the council table] of people who represent the diversity of Colwood, not just the people who can afford to run.”

Ryan Moen was preparing to take another run for a seat in Victoria until a development notice appeared on the property where he currently lives as a renter.

Moen, a member of Together Victoria who independently ran for mayor in 2018 and chairs the city’s renters' advisory committee, had a campaign website ready to go until his housing situation became uncertain and he decided against launching an election bid.

“I just need to refocus on how to survive in this rental market,” he told Capital Daily. 

While the cost of supporting a competitive campaign is a major factor in Moen’s decision not to run, he also considered the wage he would earn as a councillor—and the time commitment required to do the job—compared to what he makes at his day job. The math did not add up.

“I earn a really good wage doing what I do … and I can't put myself in a position to be at that table,” he said.

Moen will continue to participate in civic life in Victoria as a volunteer—chairing the renters' advisory committee and co-directing the Victoria Tea Festival Revival—as he prepares to apply for medical school.

“At the end of my time in school, if nothing has changed for the better to make Victoria livable for renters, I'll invest my time and skills into another city,” he said. 

Serving in public office can “negatively impact” career development, according to a 2019 report from the Union of BC Municipalities, especially for people who are near the mid-point of their career.

The UBCM report—which sought to set out best practices to help councils develop “defensible and fair” remuneration policies—noted the demands of serving on council can have far-reaching effects on “future career development and earning potential” as council members may have less time to spend building their careers in order to fulfill their public service roles.

“Councils and boards need people who are willing and able to commit the time needed to serve,” the report reads. “Remuneration reflects and compensates individuals for the time they must spend to do the job.”

While keeping council salaries low may seem like the fiscally responsible approach, the UBCM report states that low wages can be “a potential barrier” for people with lower incomes, thereby reducing diversity at council tables.

“Fair remuneration is important in helping to reduce barriers, and in attracting capable people from a variety of backgrounds, demographic groups, socio-economic classes, and employment types.” 

A controversial and awkward process

Four Greater Victoria municipalities recently passed motions to increase mayor and councillor salaries, all of which will take effect after the fall elections.

Sooke council voted on a pay raise in May while Oak Bay approved a salary bump in June.

“We wanted to just make sure that the incoming council had some sense of what it’s going to be paying,” Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch told Capital Daily. The “substantial increase” will see incoming councillors earn just over $22,000—about $8,000 per year more than current councillors do—while the next mayor will earn nearly $50,400, up from the current salary of $34,400.

The raise brings Oak Bay council salaries “more in line with the region and also to make sure there was enough money there for the amount of work that was being done, that it wasn't seen as punitive,” Murdoch said. 

He estimates council members in Oak Bay spend 10 to 15 hours per week performing their duties so a salary that reflects that “quarter time” commitment is appropriate. In Victoria, council roles are considered full-time while the commitment required in Colwood is part-time, according to Collington and Coun. Doug Kobayashi.

Esquimalt and Colwood voted on motions to increase council salaries last week. Esquimalt—where council salaries are automatically adjusted annually at the rate of inflation—added a cost-of-living increase of about 11% to council paycheques, effective Nov. 1. The next increase takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

While Esquimalt’s increase passed with little fanfare, Colwood’s pay bump—which nearly doubled the salaries of the incoming mayor and council and was recommended by an independent committee—prompted considerable debate before passing by a vote of 5-2.

Mayor Rob Martin supported the increase, which is set to take effect in January, while Kobayashi, who is challenging Martin for the mayor’s chair, voted against it. (Coun. Cynithia Day was the second nay vote.)

Kobayashi, along with fellow Couns. Stewart Parkinson and Day, argued council is a public service role that should not be compensated at the same level as a regular job. “Leaders eat last,” Kobayashi said in his closing remarks to council during Monday’s debate.

Martin disagrees, telling Capital Daily serving on council “should not be limited to only those who have the financial ability to be able to volunteer their time.”

“We need to have people who are earning minimum wage… we need to have people who are in their 30s and 40s and perhaps have young families so that voice is reflected at the council and so that we continue to build out in the community that is meeting the needs of everyone,” Martin said. “By increasing the compensation, it opens that opportunity for more people who are not just in a financial position to be able to afford to volunteer their time.”

Kobayashi does not think Colwood’s raise is enough to address potential financial barriers to seeking public office.

“This will allow marginalized people to join council? No, not at those salaries—I can go and work a job in the restaurant business which is paying a lot more per hour than I could [make] as a councillor,” he told Capital Daily.

“[For] people that are marginalized, absolutely, I can see there is a big issue but if they're in it for the money, then it's the wrong job.”

The UBCM’s report concluded most candidates for local office “are driven, first and foremost, by a strong sense of public service and a desire to make their communities better.

“Remuneration is not, in most cases, an important motivating factor.”

Best practices but no firm rules on council raises

While Martin and Kobayashi disagree on the dollars and cents of council salaries, both agree that the current system for adjusting compensation puts councils in an awkward position.

There are no hard and fast rules for setting or increasing council salaries in BC, contributing to a wide variety of approaches across municipalities. Many automatically adjust council remuneration annually based on the local Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the previous year—the same way MLA salaries are increased each year. 

Others have no automatic adjustments mechanism, like Oak Bay, where a policy that linked council salaries to CPI was abandoned after it resulted in multiple years of decreased or flat compensation. As a result, Oak Bay council salaries have not budged since 2018.

Deciding council salaries is “one of the more difficult decisions” local elected representatives have to make, per the UBCM report, and a uniquely awkward one—how many other workers vote on their salaries ever, let alone once every few years?

The best way to determine council salaries, according to the UBCM report, is to compare them to at least five municipalities with similar populations that also share characteristics “that influence elected official workload and level of responsibility,” such as location, geographic size, growth rate, scope of service, and operating budget.

Automatic cost-of-living adjustments are also recommended, along with regular reviews of council compensation conducted by an independent task force at least one year before an election with any adjustments taking effect at the beginning of the next council’s term.

Councils are not required to follow the UBCM guidelines, however, and some elected officials in Greater Victoria would like to see firmer rules put in place.

Kobayashi would like to see council members “kept at arm's length” from remuneration decisions while Martin said he “would be 110% supportive” of having the provincial government lay out expectations for local government compensation.

“If the province figured out a formula … I guarantee all municipalities within British Columbia would love to have that because no council wants to decide their own salaries,” Martin said.

Correction: This article previously identified Ryan Moen as a council candidate in 2018. Moen was a candidate for mayor.

Article Author's Profile Picture
Shannon Waters
Municipal affairs reporter

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No rules, considerable consequences: the difficult issue of council pay and diversity in public office
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