The Burlington City Council is poised to vote, by my calculation, on whether to increase councilor pay from $2.40 an hour to $3.60 an hour. And this perfunctory adjustment reminds me of a lyric from Pink Floyd’s ‘73 classic Money wherein the psychedelic rockers declare “Money, it’s a crime. Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.”
Vermont has long prided itself on a high level of citizen participation. But unfortunately, “public service” is often conflated with free or low cost service. Salaries and benefits for public sector employees are typically generous without being excessive. But even minimal compensation for the elected officials who are supposed to be overseeing an increasingly complex and intricate bureaucracy is typically shrugged off. The most common excuse given is that elected public service is an honor and a privilege and there’s no need for any type of real compensation.
In some instances, elected officials have found a workaround. For example, state legislators receive a per diem for meal allowances that far exceeds that offered to employees traveling on state business. The full per diem may be claimed, whether or not it’s actually used, while at the same time the legislature can profess that they haven’t raised actual salaries. Something’s broken here.
But what’s more important is that minimal or no pay limits those who can participate in our democracy. Those who can afford to serve are usually retired, wealthy, or lucky enough to have a relatively flexible job. Those who cannot afford to serve are simply shut out of elected office.
In Burlington, the city council doubles as the corporate board for an electric utility, an airport, a public arts organization and a telecom. I would think we’d want to broaden the potential scope of who can serve so electoral competition is increased and we get the most qualified officials possible. Most potential employers wouldn’t recruit for a job any other way.
Nobody could force those who serve to accept financial remuneration. But fairness and justice would seem to demand a mechanism by which those who cannot afford to serve on their own, still participate in our democracy.
Pink Floyd went on to sing that “Money, so they say is the root of all evil today. But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise they’re giving none away.”