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Council swiftly adopts new salary rules

Friday, February 13, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A change that will allow City Council members to shift their salaries in order to pay for extra staff passed with little opposition Thursday.

The ordinance will allow individual Council members to waive their salaries each year and apply those funds toward other operating costs of their office, including additional staff.

Council members voted 10-1 to approve the change, with Council Member Delia Garza voting in opposition.

Council Member Don Zimmerman took the opportunity to publicly commend Mayor Steve Adler for donating his salary to increase the staff in the mayor’s office.

“I have a lot of empathy for our mayor trying to deal with the whole city,” said Zimmerman.

Garza said that she couldn’t vote for the change because she believed it could have unintended consequences. She reiterated concerns that the pressure to forgo a salary could discourage people from running for office.

She also pointed out that it would put those who needed a salary at a disadvantage, because they would not have an equal ability to hire staff.

“I do believe that it kind of goes against the vision of 10-1, in that every Austinite would have an equal voice on this dias,” said Garza. “When we create these possible inequities in staffing, that could change the voice that you have on the dais. That could change the constituent services you are able to provide.

“I believe that it could create some inequity,” Garza continued.

Garza said that although Council members might agree that they could use more staff, that was a discussion that should take place during the budget process.

Council Member Ora Houston, who co-sponsored the ordinance, disagreed.

“As I’ve said over and over again, this is about choice,” said Houston.

Houston was a co-sponsor of the ordinance and has in the past explained that, as a state retiree, she does not need her salary. Instead, she would like to use her salary toward events for her district.

“What is important to me is that I be able to communicate with my constituents in District 1, which is 46 square miles … If this resolution does not pass, you hinder my ability to be able to have those conversations with the people I promised to be out in the community,” said Houston.

“There’s a sense of generosity that must be provided to the people that show up to those (events),” said Houston. “Without (this) ability, that means I would have to pay for that out of my pocket. It seems unreasonable and more effective to have it go back into my budget, so I can pay for those events out of the City Council’s budget.”

Garza explained that there was no prohibition on using salaries or office budgets to pay for events, and had herself paid out-of-pocket for refreshments at a District 2 town hall the previous week.

Houston said that she understood the allowance for food and water was about $1,400, which would not cover her outreach expenses for long.

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