You maybe know by now that a some-kind-of-a-whatever-committee at City Hall has been kicking around the idea of giving the Dallas City Council a big pay raise, from $37,500 to $60,000 a year. Eric Nicholson here pointed out last month that council members would make more than rookie cops and firemen under such a formula, an idea he liked. Another interesting Eric, Celeste at D Magazine, said the raise should be more -- something in the six-figure range.
Now columnist James Ragland is in The Dallas Morning News today with an encyclical suggesting state law banning pay for school board members should be changed so we can give them a hefty paycheck, too.
So what's with journalists? We just want to give away other people's money? You thought we hated public officials.
No. Not exactly. And about here is where I need to show my own cards. I'm for all of the above. In fact, if there were a poll of local journalists, I bet you'd find the vast majority on the side of much better pay for elected officials. Let me count the reasons.
One. We see them work. Sure, we're shouting nasty questions at them while they do it, and we're always trying to catch them at some scam, but the fact remains: We just see them work. So we know that service on the City Council or the school board goes way beyond a full-time job. It's more like full-time trench warfare.
Two. Beneath all the devil's advocate adversarial relationship, we also see that our system of grassroots community politics recruits a special kind of person to public service. Typically long before they pop up on the council or the school board we reporters have come across them in those endless droning painfully boring (for us) far-flung meetings where people are trying to hash out small-bore community and neighborhood issues. Why are they there? Somebody's got to do it. They're a certain type. They put their hands up and volunteer. We'd all be screwed if they didn't.
Three. We know that this same system tends to lift up people who have a very special gift for building consensus and solving problems. Oh, not always, of course not. You get some real losers in there sometimes, too. But more often than not the system rewards the ones who have the right stuff.
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Four. In Dallas, with no-to-low pay for most of these positions, the door is slammed shut to the big middle of the community, the people who are not paupers but also are not among the idle rich. If you're somewhere in the middle, making a good life for yourself but working your ass off to do it, elective office is a ruinous proposition. I can't tell my how many times over the years I have seen middle class council members, often among the brightest and most dedicated of the lot, lose all their clients or get bounced from their firm because they're spending so much time at City Hall.
My last observation would be this: Never has the middle class been more important to Dallas than now. In those ranks we will find the younger candidates with the new, more creatively urban mentality that is this city's greatest opportunity and promise. We need to get more of them into elected positions as soon as possible, but there has to be a way they can serve the city without totally screwing themselves financially.
So, I'm with both of the interesting Erics above and Ragland, too, in saying I think we should pay elected officials and pay them pretty well. Is there a chance, once they get those pay raises, I might pursue a story about spoiled entitled elected officials lying around on couches while scantily clad flunkies pour wine into their mouths from goat-skins? Yeah, I can see myself in such a scenario. Just because I want them to be paid doesn't mean I want them to be happy.
But I think there is general support among the journalists who watch elected officials do what they do for paying elected officials and paying them fairly well. Now ask us how we would feel if we had to pay them with our own money. What money?