Petitioners aiming to get City Council full-time pay

Samantha Ye

They may have clipboards and perkiness, but these political volunteers aren’t here to register you to vote. Making their way around campus in recent weeks are petitioners for a ballot initiative which would raise City Council salaries from roughly $10,000 a year to $57,000.

Council members would have the option of receiving a salary more proportional to their workload, supporters say, and make running for Council a viable option for a greater diversity of people.

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“Most people can’t work full-time without getting a full-time paycheck,” said Sarah Hafen, a petitioner who was gathering signatures on the Plaza.

One of those people is Fred Kirsch, leader for the charter amendment initiative and director of the local sustainability advocate group Community for Sustainable Energy.

Kirsch is running for the District 6 council seat next April to replace the term-limited Mayor Pro Tem Gerry Horak. Kirsch said he wants to serve primarily to address pressing sustainability issues and problems such as U+2 more effectively. But, he cannot work the Council job full-time on the current salary.

Right now, the City charter sets the monthly pay at $815 for council members and $1,224 for the mayor, adjusted each year for inflation. They are reimbursed for work-related expenses including business travel and individual phone data plans, according to the Council Resource Guide.

The proposed initiative Kirsch and supporters are petitioning for would raise all members’ annual salary to match the area median income defined by the U.S. Census ($57,000 in 2017) plus benefits. The budget then is $330,000 a year, not including the cost of providing benefits. Members can decline the raise if they want.

To be added to the April ballot, the initiative needs 6,058 valid signatures from people registered to vote in Fort Collins by Nov. 6, according to Rita Knoll, chief deputy City clerk. 

Kirsch said they have been petitioning for nearly the last three months and are on track to reach the recommended 9,000 signature goal. 

The hope is a better pay will make a more representative Council.

To me, I think it’s the spirit of giving in our community. And if you want to come do this work, it should be done out of the love for community, not for the love of money.”– Ray Martinez, City Council member

While Kirsch said his personal campaign is separate from the initiative (and he would serve on Council with a second job under current pay, he sees the pay as a barrier for others.

City Council decides the City budget plan and sets certain policy directions and project approvals. Current members estimate working on City business 25 to 40 hours a week by choice, over 30 hours on average. Most of that is reading policy reports, attending almost nightly meetings and events and interacting with constituents.

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Members agreed Council needs more diversity, be it age, income, gender or ethnicity. Right now, Ray Martinez is the only person of color and Kirstin Stephens is the only woman on Council.

Stephens and member Ross Cunniff said the main plus for the measure is if it can break down a barrier for individuals of different backgrounds to run.

“(Council) feels like a full-time job but doesn’t pay like a full-time job (which) makes people feel like, ‘Gosh I have to have two jobs and how would I balance that?’” Stephens said. “So I think it appeals to people who are already retired or have an extremely flexible job or are independently wealthy and don’t need to have a job or whatever scenario that it’s hard for just regular people to know how to fit that in.”

Members can still hold outside jobs if they wish under the new initiative. The amendment language requires all members to publicly report their council-related activities, probably in the form of an online public calendar, Kirsch said. This is so voters can decide if they are satisfied with the amount of work their fully paid council member is putting in.

Current members expressed uncertainty of how expectations for full-time work might change Council’s relation to staff.

Unlike Denver’s full-time, Mayor-Council-led government, Fort Collins is one of many smaller cities where the bulk of day-to-day operations are done by staff and overseen by the City manager, council members said. That takes pressure off of Council, allowing members to hold more flexible community roles rather than administrative ones.

“I think (the measure) will truly change the dynamics of Council, it will change who serves on City council, and I’m not convinced it will be better,” said Horak, who does not plan to support the measure.

While the measure only changes the pay, not the Council model, Kirsch said full-time members could and should better audit City staff and do more of their own research on topics.

“In too many cases, they rely completely on what the staff brings to them,” Kirsch said in regards to a CForSE campaign to “rent your roof to solar” facing repeated hearing delays. “If City staff has their own agenda that they’re putting forward, Council has no idea that there’s an alternative to that narrative.”

Kirsch said the previous council members he has talked to all agreed the workload of Council deserves higher pay. The door-to-door polling his group did before starting petitioning yielded a final 83 percent approval rating for the initiative.

Several current members said they would leave the final decision to voters. But, they emphasized they personally do not work for the paycheck; they make their work-life balance sacrifices for the community.

“To me, I think it’s the spirit of giving in our community,” Martinez said. “And if you want to come do this work, it should be done out of the love for community, not for the love of money.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.