As a self-professed political junkie (particularly municipal politics), I joked — along with others — about what “great theatre” the newly expanded council in Kitchener would provide. My fellow political junkies and I have not been disappointed as the seven new councillors in Kitchener have struggled at times to find their footing. From the boondoggle of the budget process to Mayor Zehr’s no punches pulled State of the City address, these have been interesting times in Kitchener. But the group is coming around. Unfortunately, I think current discussions around councillors’ salaries threatens to derail some of the progress.
I have covered municipal councils from small town British Columbia to Thunder Bay to Toronto and, as a rule, the people that run for local office do so out of a deep sense of community. The vast majority — most, but not all — also do the job in a manner that could be described as “above and beyond” by putting in countless hours and appearances that are invisible to most of us. Generally speaking, I think they’re underpaid. The funny thing is, in reading the recent analyses on councillors’ salaries, their “worth” is determined by the taxes they levy. What should concern you, then, is that a local councillor could be considered underpaid if they assessed more in municipal taxes. Want to change this analysis next year? Increase taxes in the next budget process and the picture changes dramatically. But that’s another story.
To be fair, the logic presented in those same analyses also carries weight in the argument that councillors were paid more when their number was decreased from ten to six around the horseshoe. Bigger workload, bigger pay cheque. Now, the logic tells us, the workload has been reduced. Should pay follow suit? Again, I say no. The times have changed. Our region has grown. The demands are greater than they’ve ever been. But it’s a compelling argument.
We can debate whether or not city councillors are paid appropriately at any time. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most city councillors would entertain the discussion themselves. If that’s what the public wants, salaries should be reviewed. I can’t see a councillor being against that kind of transparent process. My real issue with having the discussion now is in the timing. No council will vote to reduce its wages in the middle of a term. Nor should it be expected to. The time to address this is just before the next municipal election. Knowing the salary that will be earned, current councillors can determine whether it’s worth seeking re-election. New candidates can determine whether the salary is something worth running for. But now?
Having the discussion now is dividing councillors into the “I’ll take less money” and “this is not the time for a review” camps. There are a lot of important issues in the city that need to be addressed. A council divided or distracted by a trivial issue will not function as well as it could as it tries to address these issues.
Let’s talk again in two and a half years.