The Redmond Salary Commission is considering substantial raises for its City Council members, who currently make only $18,600 a year. Annual salary proposals range from $36,000, just enough to cover the city’s median rent, to $115,000, the living wage for an adult with two kids in King County.
But the pursuit of higher wages has been met with criticism and delays from City staff.
Redmond Mayor Angela Birney and her staff say it is “not feasible” to pay council members what the salary commission calls a living wage. And despite suggesting a shiny new paycheck of up to $220,000 for the Mayor, the City expresses concern over any big changes to council wages, claiming there is “no additional ongoing funding” in the budget. Birney says she would need to lay off an unknown number of workers to accommodate “any large” increase in salary for council. This week, City staff canceled the vote on salaries until they could drum up numbers to prove that point.
The conversation is one of many happening around the state right now. Some salary commissions in western Washington have basically doubled their council members’ salaries. The commissions argue that if cities pay their councils well, then lawmakers will no longer need second jobs or independent wealth to run for office, which could make for a better-focused, more representative legislative body. Even if they can’t score a “living wage,” Redmond's ambitious proposal could set the tone for future efforts to raise wages for the people voters entrust with so much power.
Commissions on a Mission
The Mayor appointed and the council approved seven Redmond residents to serve on the City’s independent, volunteer salary commission. The commission was supposed to hold a couple of meetings and eventually vote on new salaries for the council by May 4. The commission is not responsible for balancing the budget based on its decision.
It’s clear this commission has a different attitude than the City’s past commissions, which have historically approved puny pay bumps. Between 2004 and 2011, the Redmond City Council’s monthly pay went up from $850 to $950. More recently, the commission kicked the council an additional $50, taking them from $1,500 in 2018 to $1,554 in 2019. The salary has not changed since 2019 despite more than 15% inflation since.
But something’s in the air, and salary commissions around the region are starting to push for more money for their representatives, hoping the investment pays off for constituents.
In March, the Kent Salary Commission more than doubled the city council’s pay, bumping it from $17,172 to $36,000 a year. One of the Kent commissioners argued that low wages erect high barriers for low-income people to enter the halls of power.
Last December, the Bellingham Salary Commission nearly doubled the council’s salary, raising it from $35,652 to $67,000 per year. Initially, one commissioner proposed more than $85,000 for the council members based on the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology’s living wage calculator. The commissioner said, “I don’t want somebody doing this as a part-time job. I want their full attention for Bellingham.”
Similar conversations about focus play out every time state lawmakers run out of time to pass progressive laws.
The Washington State Legislature operates on a “hybrid model,” which means lawmakers come to Olympia for a few months a year to do their lawmaking, and then they go home to their districts to live under those laws. The belief is that the model would keep state politicians from becoming isolated and out-of-touch with the communities they serve.
However, Teri Wright, the executive director at the Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials (WCCSEO), said that plan “kind of backfired” and created an “elite legislature,'' where you have to be independently wealthy to serve. Now our legislators leave Olympia to attend to their duties as lawyers, nonprofit directors, and landlords. Also out-of-touch!
One-Third of a Penny per Hour
From questionnaires facilitated by the commission, Redmond's council clearly thinks its compensation is unfair.
The City partially justifies the low wage–just $1,554 a month–by insisting the council works “quarter-time.” However, as stated during a recent city council meeting, the City sets no minimum or maximum number of expected work hours, and the Mayor could not set such a standard even if she wanted to.
Council President Jessica Forsythe reported in her questionnaire that she works an average of 27 hours per week, which would put her hourly wage at a little over $14–if she received all of it, that is.
Because of the steep cost of the City’s health insurance, Forsythe said her net income amounts to $12.03 a month, or about 11 cents an hour. When the Long Term Care tax starts in July, she said her net pay will amount to 33 cents a month, making for an hourly net wage of about a third of a penny.
Before you start a GoFundMe for Forsythe, she’s making do. She wrote that she works as a freelance art director, and her flexible schedule allows her to carry out her council duties and still make enough money to pay rent. But if the City paid her more, she said she would “absolutely” take on more responsibilities as a council member.
For example, she had to opt out of her appointment to the Growth Management Policy Board this year because it would require a four-hour meeting during the workday once a month on top of several hours of additional reading and prep work. She could not justify the lost wages.
Forsythe wrote: “I believe the current Council pay does not promote pay equity (which the City Council is working hard to achieve for City staff) and prevents new and low-income community members from running for office. The community expects a high level of service and accountability from its elected officials, but the pay is not commensurate with those expectations.”
Council Member Jeralee Anderson made similar points about equity. She’s able to flex her time as a CEO at a nonprofit in ways that someone working a 9-to-5 would not be able to. While she wrote that no amount of money would make the job any less shitty and toxic, “more money will open up the opportunity for more people of diverse backgrounds to try their own hand at trial by fire.”
Both Forsythe and Anderson said the pay does not match the significant legal liability the council takes on.
Anderson also noted a power imbalance that results from the Mayor making more than the entire council combined despite sharing similar responsibilities. That imbalance is on track to grow.
A Living Wage for Redmond City Council
In a March 28 council meeting, Deputy Human Services Director Cathryn Laird guided the council as they discussed setting her boss’ salary for next year. The Mayor currently makes $145,000 for full-time work, plus a stipend for driving. Laird strongly advised against any cuts and suggested several salaries for the council to consider, including an annual paycheck of $220,000 to put her more in line with department directors.
As she pleaded her case to the City, she relied on many of the same arguments made by proponents of council raises, mentioning the mayor’s legal liabilities, the idea that a raise would “incentivize good, qualified candidates to run for the position,” and saying that paying a higher wage was just “the fair thing to do.”
But Laird did not seem to like those points so much when they came from the salary commission earlier that month.
In a March 23 meeting, Commissioner Fernando Medina Corey started the bargaining for raising council salaries to a living wage for King County using MIT’s living wage calculator: Around $9,600 a month, or $115,000 a year. That amounts to a 518% raise for Redmond council members and an added cost of about $676,000 per year for the City.
Laird pushed back, arguing that such a substantial pay hike for council would “impact staff morale” and trigger Redmond residents to pursue a referendum on the decision. Right-wing initiative fiend Tim Eyman collected referendum signatures over much more modest raises for state elected officials in 2018.
Other commissioners floated smaller but still major raises. According to the minutes, commissioner Matt Kanter suggested the commission set a “floor” so that, at the very least, the council would earn the equivalent of the average rent in Redmond. That wage would come out to about $2,500 a month, but the commissioner would round up that proposal to $3,000 or $36,000 a year. Another commissioner told The Stranger they thought giving the council the living wage rate for half-time, or about $57,000 a year, seemed fair.
These proposals would still keep council salaries well below those of City staff, who apparently would have bad attitudes if council got paid a living wage. In 2021, Redmond paid its average employee just under $93,000. According to Laird, the City offers between $44,000 and $60,000 to its lowest-paid position. That role is not usually filled, but the City offers the next lowest-paid position between $50,000 to $68,000. The City pays Laird between $138,000 to $186,000.
In later discussions, staff began to raise concerns about how their proposals might impact staffing. If there’s not enough wiggle-room in the budget to pay for the raises, City staff said the Mayor would have to dip into the operational budget, which would mean cutting staff. Kanter asked the City to provide layoff projections so commissioners could see how high they could raise salaries without the Mayor taking a weed-wacker to payroll.
City staff is still working on confirming their layoff hypothesis for the commission, so they canceled the April 20 and May 4 meetings, during which commissioners would have set salaries. According to the Redmond Public Information Officer, staff canceled the May 4 meeting because members did not complete their open government training. However, the commission has until June 7 to complete those government training sessions and can carry out its duties in the meantime, per state law.
The City will schedule its next meeting once it gets its data together. The City could not provide a timeline for its analysis.
Though the City canceled the meeting, some commissioners told The Stranger that when they do eventually get to vote, they’ll support the highest salary they can get while avoiding layoffs. Other staunch supporters of the living wage look at layoffs as little more than a threat, insisting that the council, who is actually tasked with balancing the budget, could raise taxes on big business to accommodate costs.
Legally, the commission can pass whatever salaries it wants.
One commissioner told The Stranger, “If the Mayor disagrees with the decision we make, I encourage her to get a clipboard and prepare to collect signatures for the referendum petition that she has continued to hold over the head of the commission.”