Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"What Ever Happened to Citizen Legislators?"

by John Alexander Madison
December 31, 2012

The City of Colorado Springs City Council wants a pay raise. State Legislators want a pay raise. County Commissioners already got theirs. As Yogi Berra might say, is this “Déjà vu, all over again?”

Colorado Springs City Council members (and some of their supporters) are seeking a 700% pay raise...from a lowly $6,000 salary range to a more “respectable” annual compensation of $40,000 or more per year or more. Is this necessary? Will we get “better” people in city government? Will we get better decision making in city government? Or will we be creating ten more overpaid politicians who believe they are entitled to more and more benefits on the public dole as the years go by?

In City government there are professional staff members who are paid very well to administer the diverse departments within city government. They ensure that services are available to citizens in a variety of areas such as public safety, transportation (road, bridges, bus and airport services), parks & recreation, public utilities, business licensing, building permits, human services, public health and so much more. Those serving on city council are policy makers who pass ordinances and set some policies regarding how city government should be run. We do not pay them to administer city government. They have two informal council meetings per month and two formal council meetings per month, each beginning at one o’clock in the afternoon. Added together that sounds like four half days, or two full days or work per month. If each meeting lasted 6 hours, that’s 24 hours of “work” per month or 3 full days.

But keep in mind, City Council members also serve as the Board of Directors for Colorado Springs Utilities. This requires another monthly meeting which could easily take six or more hours. Council members must read briefings prior to their meetings and some also serve on other agency and community boards. That is a lot of responsibility, no question about it.

There has been considerable debate about holding council meetings in the evening to allow “normal” (not wealthy or retired only) citizens to serve. That idea has merit. It would also allow more citizens to observe how their government works and to directly engage their elected officials. Is it possible that all the bickering we hear about in the media would be toned down significantly if council meetings were not filtered to us through the media? Would decorum and civility return to the chambers of local government? One can only hope.

This salary debate was escalated when citizens amended their City Charter to elect a “strong” Mayor. One would think a strong mayor with decision making powers would lead to more efficiency in government and even less day to day responsibilities for city council members. Efficiency in government does not have to be an oxymoron and that is something we should all demand. But taking power away from any elected official is not easy. Many who are observing the ongoing positioning between the Colorado Springs City Council and the City’s new Mayor have characterized their relationship as strained and, quite simply, a power struggle. That appears to be the case. Instead of allowing the Mayor the voter-approved power to run city government city council is struggling with its new identity and diminished role as policy maker only.

At the county level one county commissioner’s recent comments caused quite a stir. Former Adams County (Colorado) Commissioner Larry Pace says for two terms he pocketed full-time pay for part-time work. “If I was a taxpayer I’d be really ticked,” said Pace, a Democrat, who served from 2003 through 2011. Pace, 73, made $87,300 in his final four years, even though he says he only worked part time. “I would work about 22 hours, maybe,” said Pace. “That was it.” On top of his comfortable salary, Pace says taxpayers also paid for his car and gas, cellphone, out of state conference trips and a benefit package that likely cost taxpayers another $30,000 per year. “I do consider it a cush job,” Pace said.

Mr. Pace may be the exception rather than the rule. Some believe the job of County Commissioner is a part-time job as many commissioners in Colorado have another vocation in addition to their service as a commissioner. As in any job, however, some take their jobs more seriously than others. Depending on a county’s size the expectations, responsibilities and demands of a county commissioner may vary greatly. The same may be said for state legislators.
Should a distinction be made among those elected to government roles whose job is to set policy, pass ordinances and laws and those whose jobs are outlined in statute to administer the various roles of government? Maybe.

Why do people run for public office? Do they need a job? Do they want a title and recognition and power? Or do they have a sense of public service? Or is it all of the above. An assessment of those who have served in all levels of government over the years indicates that a wide variety of experience (and inexperience) has been brought forth to serve…in some cases in spite of low compensation levels and in other cases because of high salaries and benefits (Congress as an example.)

However, there have been those serving in the U.S. Senate and Congress who gave up lucrative careers in the medical profession or elsewhere to be elected to office. In the early years of this great country being elected to the U.S. Senate or Congress was deemed to be an honor and obligation. They were citizen legislators. After a few years those patriots were expected to return to their homes, their families, their communities, and their chosen vocations. Today it appears the motivation for many is self-serving…the perceived and real power of elected office, high paying salaries, decades of living with special privileges and recognition, being exempt from many laws that burden all other citizens (such as Obamacare), and financial security for a lifetime. What a deal. Where can I sign up?

We may never agree on what is reasonable compensation for those who step forward to serve in our government. But you have the power to make that determination. Historically, public servants were described as “noble,” representing the best interests of their constituents at great personal sacrifice. There were subjective benefits, rewards, or satisfactions derived from the job separate from its objective or financial ones…but the emphasis was, indeed, on public service, not self-aggrandizement and wealth accumulation.

I posit, that those communities wherein more and more citizens consider it a privilege to serve in an elected or appointed office will be more greatly enriched than what now motivates a majority of “public servants” today. There are quite naturally intangible benefits (psychic income) inherent in these jobs above and beyond the salary they receive. However, all too often in today’s society, professional politicians are the norm. I long for the day when citizen legislators will, once again, become the norm not the exception.


With a 4:30 p.m. (EST) December 31, 2012 announcement that Congress will not vote before midnight to avoid the “fiscal cliff” I suggest that only a handful of the 100 U.S. Senators and 435 Congressmen are worth the excessive salary, benefits, entitlements, and lifetime financial security they enjoy. Almost to a person, they are irresponsible, self-serving tax and spenders whose political agendas have one thing in common, their own survival in office. It is time to return our government, at all levels, to the people. It is time for citizens to rise up and say to our politicians “Enough is enough, it’s time to represent the best interests of those you serve, stop political posturing and planning for your next election…or go find another job.”

Henry Ford not only made automobiles, he said: “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting Government take care of him, better take a closer look at the American Indian.” AND "Only one thing makes prosperity, and that is work.” AND "There can be no bosses in our country except the people. The job of the government is to serve, not to dominate." AND “There are two fools in this world. One is the millionaire who thinks that by hoarding money he can somehow accumulate real power, and the other is the penniless reformer who thinks that if only he can take the money from one class and give it to another, all the world's ills will be cured.” By that calculation, would Mr. Ford think our current president is a fool? No argument here.

The madness that is government today cannot stop soon enough. #114

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