This year has challenged Berkeley with a tetrad of compounding crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires exacerbated by climate change, a reinvigorated movement for racial justice, and a looming budget crisis. It has never been clearer that our city requires full-time leadership to tackle these momentous issues. However, the truth is, that most council members work full time, but are only paid five hours per week, for attending Council meetings. Thus, for many years, our elected officials have been governing our city for compensation that pales in comparison to the weight and scope of the role. For example, the Council salary is in the bottom 1% of the starting salaries for the over 300 job categories listed by the city of Berkeley. The mayor’s salary ranks slightly higher in the 4th percentile.
Measure JJ would increase council member pay from $38,695 to $67,599 per year, and mayoral pay from $61,304 to $107,300 per year. I urge you to vote yes on Measure JJ to create a system of fair pay for our city council. Measure JJ is good public policy, will not require a tax increase, and will enable citizens from all financial backgrounds to serve.
I served on the Berkeley City Council for 12 years, after I retired from my scientific career. My time on the council is well behind me now, but in that role, I came to understand this city and its place in the world in new ways. We may be a relatively small city, but we have an immense impact. We consistently punch above our weight — time and time again, legislation introduced by our council paves the way for similar efforts in other cities or at the state level. Berkeley is just as much a city of “firsts” as are San Francisco, Oakland, or any other major city.
Many cities of Berkeley’s size pay their councilmembers a part-time salary for a part-time job. But as it stands today, Berkeley pays a part-time salary for a full-time job, with significant overtime! The role is much more than just showing up on Tuesday evenings to cast votes.
Berkeley residents expect a lot from their council members. Council members are deeply engaged in governing the city: between approving the budget; attending council meetings and community town halls; drafting legislation, holding office hours; and answering hundreds of letters, emails, and calls that come flooding into city hall on any given week.
In response to community interest, the city created a policy committee structure in 2018 which has allowed for deeper public engagement and more informed, nuanced legislation. But it has also increased the council workload, as each councilmember now sits on two additional committees. It’s clear to me that since my time on the council, the disparity between the scope and compensation of the role has only grown.
The mayor and council oversee the fourth-largest employer in the city with a budget of $450 million and more than 1,500 employees. Unquestionably, managing such a large, complex business requires a full-time city council, one that is representative of the diversity of our city and has a broad range of skill sets.
Berkeley’s public financing of elections makes it possible for candidates from all economic backgrounds to run for office, but the very low compensation makes it impossible for many to serve.
Low compensation for public officials shuts out a large number of qualified candidates: particularly low-income residents, single parents, working-class residents, people of color, and young people who would bring a much-needed perspective to the council.
Measure JJ promotes good government by making it possible for Berkeley residents, regardless of their wealth, to serve their community as elected officials. Its cost is minimal, 0.06% of the total budget and does not require an increase in taxes.
To ensure that Berkeley residents have leaders who can afford to give their position on the council the time it deserves, vote yes on Measure JJ this November.