There has to be a better way to set compensation for Boston City Council members, and it’s now up to Mayor Walsh to find one.
Councilors, who set their own pay, last got a raise in 2006, and it’s hardly absurd for them to want more. But rather than offering a well-thought-out formula to justify council raises, Council President Bill Linehan proposed a big, round number: a $25,000 raise — an increase of a whopping 29 percent over councilors’ current salary of $87,500. On Wednesday, a 9-4 majority approved a less aggressive $20,000 raise, to take effect in 2016. It’s still an arbitrarily large pay hike — and, worse yet, it does nothing to prevent a replay of the same cycle in the future: Years without raise, grumbling among councilors, shameless money grab. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Walsh should veto the pay hike, partly as a signal of his commitment to careful fiscal stewardship — and partly to redirect the discussion in a more productive way. While the measure passed by more than the two-thirds majority that the council would need to override him, Walsh might make his veto stick if he put forth an alternative proposal, one that recognizes councilors’ desire to be paid more but does so with a gradual formula over time. Ramming through the biggest pay hike that a majority of councilors think voters will accept isn’t a systematic or wise way to set elected officials’ compensation.
From the beginning, Linehan and other council members cast the debate in the wrong terms, by eyeballing their own compensation against recent raises received by other city employees. But that’s the wrong metric. The pay raises that unionized city workers receive are the result of extensive, sometimes bitter negotiations, during which the interests of taxpayers often take a back seat.
The broader problem is that having councilors vote on their own pay puts both them and taxpayers in an awkward position. That’s a reason to heed recommendations from the Compensation Advisory Board, which last year suggested a 9 percent hike for the mayor; traditionally, councilors have earned half what the mayor does.
A better option, raised by City Councilors Matt O’Malley and Ayanna Pressley, would link councilors’ pay to the overall prosperity of the city. Just as state lawmakers’ pay automatically rises, and occasionally falls, with the median income in Massachusetts, city councilors’ pay would be tied to how much the typical Bostonian earns each year. Such a measure would yield more frequent pay hikes for councilors, without difficult votes in the future. It would also be a much-appreciated gesture of solidarity with the average citizen — and might make councilors more likely to assess city employees’ contracts and other matters of city finance through the average Bostonian’s eyes.
Unfortunately, 11 other councilors rejected a version of this mechanism. But it, unlike what the council approved, is unlikely to offend voters. Walsh should generously offer councilors a do-over by vetoing the $20,000 hike.