Should the Council Get Up to a 145% Raise?

At last Monday’s Council meeting, a discussion requested by Matt Grocott, to consider changing how much council members are paid, took place. Although no specific dollar changes were proposed, all four of us (Bob Grassilli was out of town) agreed to bring such an item forward for action at a future meeting, although for different reasons.

Long-established state law requires that, if a city pays its council members, it can1 pay them at least $300 per month for each month the Council is in session. Back in the late 80s, the San Carlos City Council adopted an ordinance, effective 11/19/1989, paying council members that minimum. It has not been changed since.

This salary is not necessarily the only benefit a city can provide its council members. Many, including San Carlos, allow them to enroll in city health insurance plans, and pay only what a full-time employee would. Many, also including San Carlos, pay their council members an “alternative medical insurance benefit”, if they provide proof that they have medical insurance from a different source2. These medical insurance benefits can be substantial: privately obtained medical insurance costs thousands of dollars a year, and the alternative insurance benefit currently clocks in at over $800 per month.

The salary San Carlos councilmembers earn is currently the lowest of all the cities in San Mateo County which compensate their councils3:

City Monthly Salary
Colma $924.00
Redwood City $750.00
Daly City $707.00
Pacifica $700.00
Half Moon Bay $697.50
Menlo Park $640.00
Burlingame $590.00
Foster City $496.00
San Bruno $486.00
South San Francisco $440.00
Brisbane $400.00
Belmont $390.00
Millbrae $366.50
East Palo Alto $323.00
San Carlos $300.00
Total Average $567.33
Total Median $590.00

State law allows cities to increase the salary component by up to 5% per year since the last time a change was made4. For San Carlos, this means the maximum increase is 145% (29 years x 5% per year). If enacted at the maximum level, council members’ monthly salary would increase from $300 to $735.

I mentioned at the outset that all four of us supported bringing an action item back, although for different reasons. I won’t try to detail my colleagues’ views5, but, in general, the following arguments were made in favor of an increase:

  • It’s been a long time without a change
  • All our neighbors who pay council members have increased it over the years
  • Not paying more might discourage people from seeking positions on the Council
  • Paying more would remind everyone, residents and Council members alike, that being a Council member is a serious responsibility

None of these motivate me to make a change. Here’s why:

  • In all the years I’ve been a local elected official6, I know of only one person who, after learning a position was unpaid, declined to run7. I just don’t believe it’s an issue. Case in point: the San Carlos School District has never paid its trustees8, but plenty of people still vie for the positions.
  • Doing what other cities do simply because they’re doing it doesn’t make sense to me. There must be a substantive reason for San Carlos to do anything.
  • I can’t imagine any community our size paying its council members enough to justify the work they need to do if they want to be responsible community leaders. Instead, the compensation is in civic recognition and the opportunity to move up from the Council to a higher-level, full-time elected position (e.g., county supervisor, assembly member, state senator) which provides more robust compensation.

    A seat on a city council in a community like San Carlos is an entry level job. In fact, it’s even more like an internship: you get to do a bunch of interesting things, and if you do a good job you earn respect and the opportunity to apply for a full-time, fully-paid job.
  • Unless you’re appointed its hard to get elected to our Council. You must craft and hone your platform. Recruit, manage and motivate volunteers. Raise money. Run a campaign. Design, print and send out mailers and flyers. Knock on doors. Compete for endorsements. No one who has gone through all that will ever doubt how important a role it is. They’ve worked way too hard to get it!

That last point raises a more important issue. Based on my experience, the real constraint on who is willing to run for the Council isn’t how much council members get paid; it’s how much it costs to run.

It’s not uncommon for a successful campaign to spend at least $20,000 – $25,000, and some recent ones have even, I believe, spent significantly more9. Council candidates have to be either really good at asking people or businesses for money or be willing to commit a good chunk of their own resources to a campaign, or both. Not surprisingly, that’s a pretty big deterrent for a lot of people.

If the Council really wants to increase the pool of potential candidates, it’d be better off addressing the cost of campaigning than the compensation paid to council members. But that’s a complex and thorny issue which I don’t want to sidetrack this article into.

Besides, for me, the biggest issue on the topic of council member compensation involves equity and fairness. There are plenty of part-timers, interns and volunteers who work for the city and don’t have access to the city’s health insurance programs. Some don’t get paid at all. What about them? Shouldn’t the Council demonstrate a commitment to fairness, and do unto others as you’d have them do unto you?

Which is why I supported bringing this action item forward despite not agreeing with the idea that our compensation should be increased. I want to try and redress that discrepancy, either by offering more to those who currently aren’t as rewarded as my colleagues and I, or by reducing what we get to be consistent with what those other positions get.

As always, whatever your views, I encourage you to share them with the Council. Thanx for taking the time to read this.


  1. Government Code 36516 states that “A city council may enact an ordinance providing that each member of the city council shall receive a salary based on the population of the city…” Since San Carlos had a population of less than 35,000, the salary was set at $300 per month. Here’s the government code section.
  2. The economic rationale of paying this compensation is that it avoids the city having to pay the employer portion of health insurance premiums, which can be substantial.
  3. Atherton and Woodside offer no salary or benefits at all, and Hillsborough offers only health insurance.
  4. Changes only take effect after an election where council seats are in the running. In the current instance, this means neither Bob, Matt or Cameron will benefit from an increase, although Ron & I would.
  5. You can hear them yourself if you go to http://sancarlosca.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=2709, click on the video link, and navigate to the appropriate agenda item.
  6. Coming up on 17
  7. This involved a San Carlos School Board election.
  8. The District recently began offering trustees the option of joining the District’s health insurance plan, provided they pay the full cost of it.
  9. If you’re curious, you can learn the details from Crystal Mui, the city clerk. She has all the records of what candidates have spent on their campaigns.

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