Time for common sense on City Council compensation

Dawn Cieslak speaks Tuesday in support of a proposed in vitro fertilization and surgery center Tuesday during a meeting of the Naperville City Council. Cieslak's daughter Lexi, 6 was conceived via IVF.
Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
Dawn Cieslak speaks Tuesday in support of a proposed in vitro fertilization and surgery center Tuesday during a meeting of the Naperville City Council. Cieslak's daughter Lexi, 6 was conceived via IVF. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

A number of years ago, I was consulting for several companies around the country, one of which was in Florida. A couple of times a week, I would fly in and, in order to save them a few dollars, rent a tiny compact car. I noticed, however, that when I drove to their headquarters, I was often greeted coolly, even though our working relationship was excellent.

On one trip, the car that was waiting for me under the Hertz Gold canopy, with the trunk open and the air conditioning on, was a silver executive model town car, at the time just about the fanciest, most luxurious car you could rent. The note on the seat said that the car was all they had available, and that I would get it for the same price as the little puddle jumper I usually rented.

When I got to their headquarters, I was greeted more warmly than I ever had been, and the CEO made sure every vice president was in the meeting. What had been an occasionally awkward relationship had completely changed. They had become positive and very optimistic.

I realized that I had been so busy demonstrating how frugal, selfless, and morally superior I was that I hadn’t been meeting their expectations. They needed to trust that I was the guy who could do what to them seemed like the impossible task of saving their company. If I believed in my abilities, and knew I deserved the comfort and convenience of a better car and quieter living accommodations, why hadn’t I been taking them?

For the last couple of months, the City Council has been debating their compensation package. Their basic salary is around $12,000 for councilmen, plus a stipend for phone and Internet and, if they want it, subsidized health insurance. Because some councilmen reject the stipends, health insurance, and even scheduled salary increases, no two are paid the same.

Little has been decided, but they’ve discussed how many hours a week the councilmen work and how their benefits compare to what is available to other city employees. They’ve also questioned whether there are people who would do the job for nothing.

With regard to the latter point, there will always be people who would do the job without pay but, believe me, they will be doing it for something. If that doesn’t scare you, you simply haven’t thought it through.

And it’s silly to ask how many hours councilmen work. They’re not staff. They don’t need time cards. Their work can’t be measured that way. In our form of government, the city manager and his people handle the day to day business of the city, and provide whatever information the council requires or requests. While I suppose it’s nice that the councilmen are occasionally available to help citizens with problems that arise, their actual job is very straightforward.

It’s to provide judgment and direction. Frankly, that’s not an easy job. We trust that they can remain informed and do the seemingly impossible job of guiding the city successfully into the future. Accordingly, we value and respect that service, and believe they deserve the comfort and convenience that a decent compensation package provides.

I think I understand everyone’s motives in this discussion, and they’re all good. But these are important people who have earned the trust of the voters, and it’s counterproductive for them to act as though they’re just regular folks. They deserve a compensation package that allows them to concentrate on their responsibility to the city, and not be distracted by personal worries.

Should the citizens conclude that any or all of them aren’t sufficiently deserving, we already have a mechanism in place to deal with that, and we’re going to hold one of those next spring.

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