BEYOND THE HEADLINES: A balancing act
Politicians traditionally dodge questions about salary because any response can come across as self-serving and fuel the perception they’re only in it for the money.
So I was somewhat surprised Monday when Vernon Mayor Rob Sawatzky actually indulged my question about council remuneration and whether there should be a raise.
“I would like to see it higher,” he said.
Sawatzky’s reasoning is the current level of pay isn’t enough to encourage people to abandon their careers or interrupt precious time with their family.
And he has a point because there’s more to elected office than just sitting at a council meeting twice a month. Committee and regional meetings fill the rest of the calendar, and there are endless hours spent reading reports so you are informed about issues requiring a decision. On top of this, there are non-stop calls and e-mails from constituents and attending the fundraisers and social events people expect to see their community leaders at.
For the base salary of $20,474, it hardly seems worth it to become a councillor in Vernon.
However, there may be a reason to consider running for mayor given the base salary of $63,466.
The recent Vital Signs report indicates the median employment income is $47,354 for those working full-time, year-round, while the City of Vernon’s community profile says the median income for men is $35,575 and for women it is $23,000, slightly below the provincial average. No matter which statistic you use, it’s still well below what the mayor takes home.
It should also be pointed out that provincial rules call for one-third of the remuneration earned by mayors and councillors to be tax-free, so that brings an additional financial boost to the recipient.
During the interview, Sawatzky also raised another issue about compensation.
“It (higher salary) will allow you to select from a larger pool of people,” he said of voters considering the list of candidates.
“Right now, you select from a pool of people where money doesn’t matter.”
And if you look at the current make-up of Vernon council, he is right. Of the six council members, three are retired and three own their own businesses, which provides them some flexibility. Missing are the rank-and-file folks who contribute to taxes and rely on city services.
There’s no question that a mill worker, a minimum wage earner at a big box store or a tradesperson would bring a different perspective to the discussions around council chambers. They have different life experiences.
However, those voices aren’t heard because the average citizen can’t afford to take time away from their day job no matter how much they want to give back to the community (another factor is that council meetings are in the afternoon).
But while Sawatzky raises some salient comments about how remuneration negatively impacts the democratic process, they shouldn’t be misconstrued as a demand for more dough. Sawatzky is very aware of what’s been happening in the community since the economic downturn.
“Vernon’s big enough that there’s a lot of work for mayor and council but it’s a size of community that can’t easily pay more,” he said.
It’s unknown if Sawatzky will seek a second term or if he will return to his more lucrative medical practice, so his comments aren’t personally motivated. He is looking at the big picture.
The debate in Vernon is one that could be replicated in every jurisdiction in the province.
How do you urge a broad spectrum of people to be active in the community without nailing taxpayers to the wall or turning what should be public service into a well-paying, career gig?
Ultimately, there are no easy solutions but hopefully trying to make the community a better place to live will continue to be the thrust behind running for office.