UHLC Prof Zale analyzes compensation for city officials in a forthcoming Stanford Law Review article 

Professor Kellen Zale

August 7, 2017 — University of Houston Law Center Assistant Professor Kellen Zale has written an article on how pay is set for city council members among the nation's nearly 20,000 cities and how over- and undercompensation can affect the quality of local government.

The article, "Compensating City Council," is to be published by the Stanford Law Review in 2018.

"It is important to understand the systems used to compensate the people that govern our cities because cities are responsible for a vast range of substantive policy-making, from education and public employment to land use and infrastructure," Zale says. "Furthermore, cities are increasingly taking on broader, more innovative roles in the face of deadlock at the federal and state level.

"While compensation amounts are not necessarily determinative of quality of governance, compensation procedures affect who is able and willing to run for public office. And who governs our cities matters because our cities matter."

While government service is not supposed to be overly remunerative, she says, without adequate compensation, legislative office will not be an option for some who would otherwise be interested in serving but who cannot afford to do so.

"Not providing adequate compensation also may be a "penny-wise, pound-foolish" decision that is not ultimately in the public interest: lawmakers are not given the resources needed to adequately handle the complex issues they face, and then are voted out of office for failing to deal with them because they lacked the resources," Zale explains.  "Conversely, when compensation is set too high, it is a drain on public budgets and may attract those less interested in public service and more in pecuniary gain."

Two of the most commonly used procedures to set city council compensation are for members deciding their own pay and mandatory voter referenda.  Zale contends these types of procedures may skew compensation outcomes. When council members decide their own salaries, officials may reject higher compensation to improve their chances of reelection or they may seize the opportunity to increase their pay and cash in on public service. When voters decide salaries, they almost invariably reject referenda on pay raises for elected officials because of the inherently politicized nature of politician pay.  Zale finds neither approach is likely to result in pay determinations that an impartial decision-maker acting in the public interest would reach.

Existing procedures can result in either overcompensation or undercompensation, Zale says, and neither outcome is desirable. Overcompensation places a greater burden on taxpayers; risks electing officials more interested in pecuniary incentives than civic duty; and may fail to account for non-monetary benefits of public office.  Conversely, undercompensation can limit candidates to only those wealthy enough to afford to serve in office; risks a less effective, accountable and transparent government; and potentially can lead to conflicts of interest and corruption.

If cities want to attract and retain dedicated, qualified public servants, Zale suggests four ways cities can minimize issues of over- and undercompensation, depending on each municipality's own structural framework and state laws:

  • Create or improve an independent commission which sets council salaries;
  • Establish or fine-tune a benchmark based on a comparison of similar cities;
  • Limit mandatory voter referenda; and
  • Delay implementation of a pay raise until a new council is elected

"The inherently politicized nature of politician pay limits the extent of reform possible, and eliminating all overcompensation and undercompensation distortions is unlikely," she concludes. "But I do believe that an awareness of how the mechanisms used to set city council compensation can produce distortions in pay – and understanding why such distortions are normatively undesirable – can help us improve the systems used to compensate the people who govern our cities."

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