Compensating County Council’s Work
On October 19, the Prince George’s County Council voted 4-3 to increase their salaries in December 2011. Each member currently makes $96,417, and they are the highest paid council members in Maryland. Their salaries exceed that of neighboring Montgomery County, and far surpasses all others throughout the state (the next highest paid members in Baltimore City make $58,000).
This begs the question: what is a County Council member’s work worth? In the Gazette, Councilman Dernoga rightly points out that the work can be demanding, with 70 to 80 hour work weeks (depending on the amount of effort put into it). However, we all know that each Council member’s work is not equal, and I don’t really believe that my representative in District 9, Councilwoman Bland, is giving us our money’s worth or dedicating 80 hours a week to the business of District 9. I’m not convinced that the majority of our Council is doing that either. The Washington Post reported that Councilwoman Harrison and Councilwoman Turner did not even show up for the Council meeting to vote on the matter. If they cannot prioritize attendance at the regular Council meeting to vote on their own salary, I am hard-pressed to believe that they are busy with other Council business for 80 hours each week.
However, even if they were busy doing their job as public servants for 80 hours a week, do they deserve the highest salaries among all elected officials in the state of Maryland? Their salaries aren’t just a bit higher, but far exceed those of other elected officials. If we were to adopt the popular “pay for performance” policy that has been instituted in many local governments, the performance of our elected officials compared with our neighbors would definitely not merit a pay raise, and instead would probably be worthy of a significant pay cut. Representing a county with the worst schools and the highest crime rate in the state of Maryland does not merit the compensation they currently receive.
The excessive salary that is paid to our Council members encourages the aristocratic mentality of those in elected office. Because of their flexible Council schedule, many also “pad” their Council income with other part-time work as attorneys, consultants, and business owners. They can afford to live in gated communities and send their children to private schools. If they earn so much more than their constituents, then they have less of a reason to empathize with the struggles of most residents, such as crime-ridden neighborhoods, persistent unemployment, and underperforming schools. They can’t possibly be interested in changing their regular Council meetings from the day to the evening, when most of their constituents could actually attend and participate in the legislative process. That would be outside of their “work” hours.
While that assessment may seem a bit harsh, I harshly criticize because I know that the county has an image problem that is exacerbated by embarrassing decisions such as the one our County leaders recently made. I am also keenly aware that a different type of leadership would emerge in our County if the position weren’t partially motivated by pay. For many years, I have worked in another local jurisdiction in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where our Council members make one-quarter of the salary that our leaders make in Prince George’s County. They all hold regular jobs during the day, and most make a tremendous sacrifice to serve in elected office. They must attend Council meetings that are held in the evenings and public hearings on weekends, when the public can actually attend and provide input on important matters. They are out nearly every night of the week at civic group meetings, work sessions, and community events. They all serve the entire community and they view their Council work as public service, rather than a job deserving of compensation. Many contribute their salary back to various local charities. Imagine the type of county we could become if our own elected leaders viewed their positions as public service rather than a job. I challenge the incoming Council members and County Executive to consider these issues after they take office, and not just rescind the pay raise, but take a major pay cut and make their compensation match the median pay of elected leaders around the state.