Opinion: The buck stops with Red Deer city council

Red Deer city council has taken measures to distance itself from decisions about its pay.

The fact there’s still the possibility of stirring public criticism is proof of just how difficult discussions about political compensation are.

The city manager will compare the salaries received by the mayors of similar-sized cities next year, in advance of the 2021 election. If a raise is warranted — meaning at least a five per cent pay discrepancy is found — the top up will come into effect after election day.

Councillors’ salaries will be set at 55 per cent of the mayor’s.

The impact of the policy is that today’s council members won’t vote on any possible salary increase, nor will they necessarily benefit from one. Only those who are part of the next council will be paid at the higher rate, assuming an increase is recommended.

The removal of annual wage decisions is welcomed. Elected officials, after all, are better considered contract workers, rather than long-term employees. They seldom join the organization as inexperienced workers, with the expectation that if the environment is a rewarding one, and they contribute to the group’s success, they’ll stay on for a lengthy career.

No, city councillors serve at the public’s pleasure. That means they can hold their seat for a single four-year term, or for as long as they and the voters are prepared to continue the arrangement.

Setting the salary in advance of the election, and not wavering from that for the next four years, seems fair to everybody.

The new system provides city politicians with clarity about their compensation and removes the yearly spectacle of politicians haggling over how much they deserve. At some level, after all, it’s still hoped there’s an element of public service associated with sitting on city council, even though in Red Deer’s case, and many others, the compensation and benefits are exceedingly generous.

The new system doesn’t guarantee city council won’t be placed in difficult situations in the future, however.

In recognition of the difficult times facing the region, for instance, council recently dismissed the notion of a pay increase.

“As we continue to navigate the current economic climate, it is imperative for council to demonstrate financial responsibility and leadership,” said Mayor Tara Veer earlier this fall.

“Financial sustainability is one of our top priorities, and it’s critical that we look at all avenues for addressing the financial pressures we are facing as a result of the continuing provincial and local economic realities.”

Council’s leadership won it praise. A little more than a month later, and we have the prospect of a different scenario.

What happens if the city manager recommends a pay increase next year? There would be no recognition of the tough economic times by our civic politicians. The real-life experiences of city taxpayers will mean nothing when set alongside the icy-cold comparisons with similar-sized centres elsewhere in Canada.

Some councillors might be tempted to argue against a salary increase amid stubbornly difficult economic circumstances, but others will assuredly point out the intension of the exercise was to take politicians out of the decision-making process.

They’ll say they have no choice but to accept the city manager’s recommendation, and besides, there’s no guarantee they’ll be returned to council after the election. Such sophistry ignores the fact, of course, that incumbents, in all but the rarest of cases, are re-elected.

The reality is that when you’re in charge of the public purse, you’re accountable for every penny that’s spent.

“… they can still overrule me,” says the city manager of his elected bosses and the new system for approving council pay raises.

“Anything I do can be overruled by council…”

Exactly. That’s how it should be, and that’s why council hasn’t put the thorny issue of political pay to bed just yet.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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