In the City of Bend, leaders recognize that in order to offer sound governance, you're going to have to lay down some cash. City Manager Eric King earns a healthy salary that's well over $200,000 a year. Many other city jobs pay at least six figures. These are the salaries that allow Bend to attract, and hopefully retain, the employees who keep the city running and who, with a comfortable paycheck, ideally won't fall prey to corruption or stealing or influence peddling or other shenanigans that can come when one has access to public funds.
One only needs to look at the recent debacle involving former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to see the trouble a public employee can find themselves in when they're faced with the temptations of influence and cash. In Fagan's case, her below-six-figures salary was so low that she supplemented her income by taking on a consultant gig that was rife with conflicts of interest. When it was discovered, she resigned her post as Secretary of State.
In Bend, leaders have taken steps to ensure that staff jobs – including that city manager position – are paid salaries that are competitive with other cities in Oregon. Yet when it comes to the semi-volunteer positions that have the most amount of potential for influence-peddling baked into them, we seem to have thus far been OK with low pay. City councilors in Bend currently earn close to $10,000 a year for their contributions to the City. The mayor earns about double that. And while these are part-time positions that are meant to be advisory in nature, one has to wonder whether that low pay combined with long hours prepping and attending meetings, sitting in committees and meeting and corresponding with constituents is really fair – and not just fair, but equitable. Who is deciding not to serve in these servant-leader positions, simply because they can't afford to do so?
Our editorial board has weighed in in favor of increasing councilor pay in the past, and supported the change to the city charter that allowed the issue of councilor pay to be removed from said charter, instead to be handled by a committee. Voters in Bend supported that change, too. As prescribed by that vote in 2018, a city committee now meets every five years to discuss the issue of council pay. Five years have now passed since that process was set up, so it's time for a Council/Mayor Compensation Review Committee to consider pay once again.
Given that the cost of living in Bend only continues to go up, that the population (and the tax base) continues to rise and the concerns of the city continue to be more complex every day, it makes sense to start treating our city elected officials like the professionals we want them to be. Our current mayor is an attorney and the mother of a young child and has said publicly that she treats the job of mayor as a full-time one. But given the poverty wages that are currently offered for the position, that's likely a hardship – even for someone with a law degree.
Some of the biggest issues Bend faces are ones that are most acutely felt by its lowest-income residents. Perhaps none of those issues are bigger than housing and the overall cost of living. Having councilors who are both well-qualified to govern as well as well-apprised of the pressures of living here on a limited income is a tall order, but without the ability to earn a living wage, Bend won't find many of them.
Some will argue that taxes are already too high, that the monies used in paying our leaders more could be better spent helping to fund affordable housing projects or to plow the streets. Those are certainly valid concerns. But we've changed our city charter before in order to better meet the needs of residents in the 21st Century, and we should do it again – perhaps to decrease the number of councilors from seven to five, for example, allowing Bend to raise individual councilors' pay while also reducing the number of people it has to pay. That's just one idea the Compensation Review Committee should consider, in the name of diversifying Bend's council and ensuring sound, corruption-free leadership.