When Jim Francesconi made a motion at city council last week to exclude himself and other elected officials from a proposed pay increase, the silence was almost palatable. The pay increase proposal was tucked in amongst a list of other simple business matters--approving city contracts, granting a street closure permit, foreclosing a property for use as a park. The pay increase, introduced by Mayor Vera Katz, was meant to be a simple, slam-dunk administrative measure.

But when the matter, item 693 on the "consent agenda," came up during Wednesday's afternoon meeting, Francesconi spoke up and suggested council members vote to remove themselves from the pay increase.

"With high unemployment rates and without any money [in the city budget]," Francesconi explained, "now is not the time."

Taken in its entirety, the ordinance was designed to give a two percent cost-of-living increase to all non-union-represented city employees, from the mayor to sports officials. Because the mayor and city council members are elected officials and not represented by a union, they also get lumped into the pay increase plan. (A year ago, the council also voted to give itself a pay increase.)

"I think at a time when our citizens are struggling," Francesconi pitched in, "now is not the time to be giving ourselves raises."

Francesconi suggested that council pull the matter from its stack of ordinances, and redesign it so council members and the mayor were not included in the wage increase. Under Francesconi's proposal, other city employees would still receive their cost-of-living pay increases.

But no one spoke up to second Francesconi's motion--a procedural motion necessary to move the issue to a vote.

In a strange rebuttal, commissioner Randy Leonard countered that the pay increases were necessary to provide a juicy enough incentive for ordinary citizens to ditch their jobs and run for office. Otherwise, as he explained, council seats would only be sought by the wealthy, who don't need the income, or citizens willing to live on a meager wage.

"There's a whole swath of working-class people out there that can't run for council," Leonard explained. Council members earn roughly $88,000 annually--more than double the median salary in town.

In the recent primary election, Leonard defeated a field of contenders to retain his seat on council. Saying that Leonard was not in touch with ordinary residents, a consortium of eight community activists had hoped to unseat him. Combined, those opponents were able to raise less than $50,000; meanwhile, Leonard spent $248,851.97 on his victorious campaign.

A spokesperson from Francesconi's office assured that the gesture to forego the pay increase was not a campaign year stunt for mayoral hopeful Francesconi.

"Given where the [city] budget is," the spokesperson explained, "Jim thought it was an important message to get to the people." He went on to say, "On its own, will it balance the budget? No. But it is an important message to send."

Francesconi has said he will give the entirety of his pay increase to SUN Community School, an afterschool program in town that offers recreational programs and academic assistance. Four years ago, Francesconi helped start the program.

The three other council members said they plan to take the pay increase. Mayor Katz was undergoing chemotherapy and not present for the hoopla.

by Phil Busse