Freshman Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, has filed legislation that would remove salary limits for city councils, a measure her predecessor opposed.
Hudson’s House Bill 1108 also would indirectly remove limits on salaries for elected city school boards. There is not yet a companion bill filed in the Senate.
State code sets salary limits for members of city councils based on population, ranging from $11,000 to $30,000. Salaries for county boards of supervisors also are bound by population, with pay for supervisors statewide ranging from $4,000 to $15,000.
The current maximum pay for Charlottesville is $18,000 for councilors and $20,000 for the mayor.
Elected city school boards are governed by the same guidelines.
Proponents of higher salaries have said that it would remove economic barriers from running for public office. Opponents say that government service is a part-time volunteer position and have cautioned against open-ended salary guidelines.
“We sometimes have a romantic vision that keeping salaries low ensures only the pure of heart will seek public office,” Hudson said. “More often, I think, it puts public service out of reach for people from the marginalized communities that need representation most.”
Charlottesville attempted to receive permission to operate outside the state limits in the 2019 General Assembly session through revisions to its charter. Lawmakers must approve charter changes because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, meaning localities only have powers specifically granted to them by the state legislature.
That charter change passed the council on a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Nikuyah Walker voting in favor and Councilor Heather Hill opposed. The other three councilors are no longer on the panel.
Councilors have debated the issue in terms of workload, saying they put long hours into the position. However, some have argued that the long hours are due to poor city leadership and distrust between elected and appointed officials.
Hill said that in the city’s council-manager form of government, which makes the city manager the city’s administrative leader, the council should support the manager and staff to “effectively and efficiently meet the needs of all our citizens and the role of a councilor is able to truly be a part-time job.”
“I have concerns if we go to a model that provides no guidelines or limits and the decisions are being left to those who are serving in these positions,” she said.
The measure never progressed to the legislature last year because it wasn’t introduced by the city’s two representatives during the session, then-Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, and still-serving Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath.
Toscano, who represented the area for 14 years, said at the time that “introducing a charter that would allow the City Council to raise their salaries to an untapped amount is a non-starter in the General Assembly.”
Deeds didn’t return requests for comment.
Charlottesville’s City Council voted to make technical amendments to its charter last year, and Hudson introduced the revised document in this year’s session.
The revised charter says that salaries will be set in accordance with state code. The city’s legislative priorities, which were passed unanimously, sought the power for councilors to set their own salary.
Hudson said the bill is “about local flexibility” and the state shouldn’t have an interest in telling cities how much to pay elected officials.
“Cost of living and expectations for elected officials vary across communities, so communities should be able to compensate their officials accordingly,” Hudson said in an emailed statement. “State code sets the salary for the General Assembly. Why shouldn’t local government regulate itself as well?”
Hudson said voters would still have safeguards to keep local governments from enacting exorbitant salaries.
“If voters don’t like paying higher salaries, they can punish elected officials at the ballot box,” she said.
Councilor Michael Payne said he supports the bill and emphasizes that it only gives local governments the choice to change the salary rates.
Payne said that the time dedicated to being a councilor makes it hard to earn much other income.
“It’s hard to raise a family on $18,000 a year, and if you’re a city councilor, it’s hard to have another full-time or part-time job just because of the hours,” he said.
Councilor Lloyd Snook said he supports the legislation because it gives local governments more say. He said he doesn’t have an opinion yet on whether Charlottesville should change its rates.
State code requires that no changes to the salaries of elected officials take effect until July 1 after the next general election.
If Hudson’s bill were to ultimately become law, members of the Charlottesville School Board would be able to set their own salaries, as well. City School Board members have an annual salary of $4,500 and the chair gets $5,500.
The Albemarle County School Board would remain bound by the limits for boards of supervisors because no legislation has been proposed to change that portion of state code.
Walker, reached by phone, said she had no additional comment on councilor pay and referred to comments made at past meetings.
“If you’re talking about people sitting out there now thinking, can I comfortably run for council, do that job, take care of my family and feel like it’s a possibility, I would say for most people that’s not the case,” she said in November 2018.
Councilor Sena Magill said the salary caps don’t “adequately reflect the cost of living in all localities.” She said local power allows governments to determine an equitable pay rate for their area.
“It’s very prohibitive of people of different backgrounds serving,” she said. “I’m not saying city councilors should be making $100,000 a year, but city councilors should be compensated a fair and equitable wage for the time and effort that’s put into it.”
Hudson’s salary proposal and the Charlottesville charter have been referred to the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns.