Rochester City Council President Randy Staver predicted council salaries would be a factor heading into this year’s elections.
“I do believe it will be a topic discussed during the campaign, and I will say that it isn’t one where everyone agrees,” he said prior to deciding not to seek another term. “During our discussions I heard feedback ranging from it is too little, too much or, more often, just poorly timed.”
Staver was one of two council members to vote against the increases approved in January, when the mayor’s salary was increased from $37,657 to $65,700, along with the the council president pay increasing from $27,743 to $47,300. The salaries for the remaining council members rose from $21,712 to $39,420.
Raised during last winter's heated debate about salaries was the question of whether city council positions are full- or part-time jobs.
Opinions about the salary increase vary among the 16 candidates and nearly two-thirds of them consider the positions to be full time.
The Ward 6 candidates may have the widest variety of views, with two of the six saying the raises had a direct impact on their decision to run, but for different reasons.
“The current member for Ward 6, Annalissa Johnson, invited me to run for Ward 6 when she advocated so strongly to increase the council members’ pay for the purpose of attracting better qualified candidates than herself,” said candidate Todd Pisarski, a certified public accountant.
Pisarski said he believes the council positions are part-time and the salaries need to be rolled back.
One of his fellow Ward 6 candidates, however, said she wouldn’t be able to consider running without the council salary.
“A single parent, like myself, working a low-wage job, who has new ideas, could not take second employment to run for office while supporting a family,” said Molly Dennis, a special education paraprofessional.
Dennis said her research into the council members’ roles show they are full-time positions, especially if the council members expect to be responsive to the diverse populations they represent.
David Diercks, a Transportation Security Administration security officer, agreed with Pisarski about the part-time status, and added that the salary issue played a role in his decision to run on a campaign based on the belief that the council has lost touch with its constituents.
“The pay increase was one example,” he said.
Others seeking the ward seat, however, pointed to the workload in defining the position as full-time.
“Having spent Sunday morning scrolling through the 839-page council agenda packet and after listening to everyone’s subject-matter knowledge during the council meeting Monday afternoon, filling the role of city council member in Rochester is a huge commitment,” said candidate and retired CPA Tom Rigby, of the June 1 council agenda and meeting.
He had decided to run before the salaries were discussed.
Donavan Bailey said he also didn’t take the salary issue into consideration before filing as a candidate, but he sees the position as a full-time job, with the need to be able to respond quickly to community issues.
“In a sense, it’s like a salaried job where your volume is paid for, if you will, rather than a certain number of hours in a day or week,” he said, adding he plans to keep his job in the Minnesota Public Defender’s office.
Craig Ugland, a real estate agent, said he believes the council members were underpaid at $21,712, but thinks the increase to $39,420 was improperly implemented.
He also said the view of the workload is more nuanced.
“I think it's extremely important to be prepared for every meeting, respond to every constituent's questions and concerns, and to participate in our community,” he said, “But is that a job, civic duty, or passion?”
Candidates in races for Ward 2, Ward 4 and city council president seats also offered a variety of views on the subjects of council pay and workload, with some saying they want to roll back the salaries and others saying it’s time to move forward.
Here’s the opinions they shared:
In the only election with an incumbent on the ballot, challenger Mark Bransford cited the salary increases as a campaign topic, stating he would return anything earned beyond $21,712 each year.
"The pay raise is just one issue that prompted me to run,” he said, adding that he’d work to rescind it. “It underscores my concern with the city council’s rigid, top down approach to governance, which must change.”
He said he views the council position as a part-time job.
Candidate Denise Welte said she also considers the position to be part-time, but said the council’s salary decision didn’t play into her reason for running, since she decided to join the race last year.
“However, the increase and the lack of transparency I felt was certainly unjustified and another reason for a change in Ward 2 and the city council,” she added.
Michael Wojcik, the incumbent, said he knew he’d face the issue in the campaign, but noted it shouldn’t overshadow the larger concerns related to running a city, which help justify the salaries, due to the time and experience required.
“There appears to be people running for office who have never championed any cause, participated in any community effort, but are only there to complain about council members being paid $39,000 per year,” he said. “What happens when these individuals who lack understanding of other issues are needed to lead?”
“This is a great issue if you want to get people riled up, but not a great issue if you care about leading a community,” he added.
In the city’s Fourth Ward, none of the candidates are calling to roll back the pay increase, but some are raising questions about how it was enacted.
PJ Calkins, a sales and marketing strategist, said he believes a salary adjustment was needed, but thinks it was too aggressive and needs to be more in line with community expectations.
Calkins is the only candidate among the four who said he thinks the council seat is a part-time job.
“If you want the best minds and the greatest people, it needs to be one of those things that you can do on the side, but still have something else going on, where you can learn and pull from and have experience,” he said.
Katrina Pulham, a small-business owner, said she had thought of the position as part-time before looking closely at what is involved, and now she sees it as a full-time job.
She said the salary change isn’t a primary focus of her campaign, adding that the salary needed to be increased after sitting stagnant for years. Still, she said she expects it’ll be a common question throughout the upcoming months.
“I think it will be an issue across the board, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” she said, suggesting the council should have sought a more gradual increase.
Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick said the salary didn’t play a part in her decision to run, since she had started telling people her plans in November.
The landscape designer, who has been attending council meetings for the last year, said she does consider the council position to be a full-time job.
Abel Britio, a sales manager, goes even further in his view of the workload.
“It is a 24-hour-a-day responsibility,” he said, adding that the salary increase wasn’t a consideration in his decision to seek the council seat.
Rochester’s three candidates to replace Staver as city council president said the salary issue didn’t influence their decisions to run, but they differ on their messages regarding the raises.
“If we look around at what’s going on, and we truly want our city leadership to reflect both the racial and economic diversity here, we need compensation for the paid work those people might have to give up to serve,” candidate Brooke Carlson said. “Even if we agree it was done wrong, the new salary fairly addresses disparities of opportunity many of us don’t always see.”
The small-business owner said the hours of meetings, committees, official engagements and constituent requests, as well as needing to digest hundreds of pages in council agendas, add up to full-time work.
Fellow candidate Vangie Castro agreed. “I understand and know the amount of time they put in, and it’s more than 40 hours a week, if you really want to do a good job,” she said, adding that appropriate salaries mean council members won’t be tempted to put their city responsibilities in second place behind another job.
A community organizer who has worked with agencies and efforts that have engaged City Hall, Castro said salary was not on her mind when she considered running and she considers the issue closed.
Kathleen Harrington, the third candidate in the race, doesn’t consider the elected officials’ salaries to be set in stone.
“I am angry about how the pay raise was handled,” she said. “I think local government is a calling for service, not a career. To me, service means meeting the needs of others -- not yourself -- especially when so many are suffering."
She said she would rescind the raise and begin again with a transparent process to determine appropriate pay.
Harrington, president of Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, has said she will give up the chamber position if elected to the council.
All four city council races require an Aug. 11 primary election to narrow the candidates to two per race for the Nov. 3 general election.