In December 2012, following a nearly eight-month study, the city’s Elected Officials Compensation Committee, an independent group of seven residents required by the city charter to review the compensation of elected officials every four years, recommended to the council the raise.
Its proposal was based on a review of the Atlanta council’s pay compared to governing bodies in other cities similar in population and budget. The council’s new salaries of $60,300 for members and $62,000 for the president are still lower than their counterparts’ in cities such as Boston, Milwaukee, Denver, Portland, Seattle and Washington. The old Atlanta salaries were $39,473 for council members and $49,997 for council president.
The committee said Atlanta elected leaders have a more expansive oversight responsibility than those cities, including managing Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest, and the city’s enormous sewer and water operations.
The council approved the pay increase 10-4. Council members Carla Smith, Cleta Winslow, Alex Wan, Howard Shook, Yolanda Adrean, Felicia Moore, Joyce Sheperd, Michael Bond, Aaron Watson, and H. Lamar Willis voted yes, and Kwanza Hall, Natalyn Archibong, C.T. Martin and Keisha Lance Bottoms dissented. Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. was absent.
The raise is the council’s first since 2005, and members interviewed for this article said the commission had recommended a raise in 2008 but the council rejected it then, citing a poor economy that had forced the city to lay off and/or furlough employees and cut back on services in other ways.
All five council members interviewed said they will take the pay raise, adding his or her job is more than just attending council meetings but committee meetings, work sessions, community meetings and being out in the area he or she serves, hearing residents’ concerns at places like the grocery store or the gym.
District 9’s Moore, the senior member of the group, is entering her fifth term on the council. She works part-time as an associate real estate broker and is also taking classes at Central Michigan University’s Atlanta-area campuses to master’s degree in public administration. But the bulk of her time is spent as a councilwoman.
When asked how many hours per week she spent on that job, she said, “I would say in the 50- to 60-hour range some times. It varies. On average [it’s] 50 hours a week. It depends on the week. My real estate [job], that’s why I do that, [because] it’s flexible. I spend very little time on it, eight to 10 hours a week.”
Moore said the raise is deserved, adding, the council made only $22,000 a year when she was first elected in 1997.
“If you’re going to do anything, it’s going to take more than a part-time commitment and I get frustrated with people who categorize it as part-time or full-time,” she said. “In 1996, when they did the charter, there was a lot of discussion about it. [The commission] recognized it as a full-time job. They changed it in ‘96 and they took that out for a reason, because it’s full-time. …
“I just say it’s a job and a commitment you make to serve the citizens and the time put in to consider the commitment far exceeds being a full-time job. I have six NPUs in my district. Some council people may have only one NPU meeting they have to attend per month.”
District 6’s Wan, who is entering his second term, works as director of development at Emory University in DeKalb County.
“My time is evenly split between my day job and duties as a council member,” he said. “It’s probably a 70- or 80-hour work week with 40 on the day job and 30 to 40 as a council member.”
Wan said the higher salary, like the private sector, will attract higher quality candidates pursuing posts on the council. He also said though the council job at one time was considered a part-time one, today’s position demands a full-time commitment based on “the expectations or obligations a council member has.”
“This is just speculation, but in the periods where city services have been cut back due to layoffs or services decline, council members are expected to close that gap,” Wan said. “That’s when expectations started creeping up and that’s where we are today.”
District 8’s Adrean, who is entering her second term, spent 12 years as an accountant for Ernst and Young but does not have a day job in addition to being a councilwoman. She said she could not estimate the number of hours she spends per week on council duties but considers it a full-time job. Adrean also said the council’s responsibilities include overseeing a budget of $1.5 billion.
“I don’t disagree [with the notion it’s a full-time job] because we are very responsive to our constituents,” she said. “Being responsive means every day of the week. If a constituent has an issue, they have an expectation they can reach you. We’re also expected to have relationship with all the other government entities.
“After all, we’re all drawing from the same set of taxpayers, with the school board and Fulton County and surrounding government. In order to leverage tax dollars and make things run efficiently, we need to devote our time to serve the city’s residents. I did have a constituent who called me on Mother’s Day and we stayed on the phone until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Norwood, who as the Post 2 at-large council member represents the entire city, defeated Watson in the November election. She is reclaiming the seat she held from 2002 through 2009 after running for mayor in ’09. She is owner of Norwood Communications, a communications company that includes robo-calls. She sold that division of the business two years ago and said she will spend little time working for it overall while in office. Norwood also said she considers being a council member a full-time job and will cut back on her volunteer roles to devote more time to public service.
“I think the raise [and] the salary that has been decided is appropriate for the amount of work and the complexity of issues council members are asked to legislate and address every day,” she said. “City council has always been a full-time job for me. … “[Since winning the election], I’ve already gotten dozens of calls from constituents and talked to council members about the calls I’ve gotten.”
District 7’s Shook, who is entering his fourth term, said he has always considered his job as a councilman full-time work. Shook, who said he ran U.S. Fluid Technology, an antifreeze recycling company, before being elected, estimates he spends at least 40 hours a week working as a councilman.
Both Wan and Shook said some of the candidates in the 2013 election may have entered the race partly because of the pay increase, and Shook said his two opponents even asked whether or not it was a full-time job. The time when council members could devote only part of their days to the job has passed, Shook said.
“In a perfect world, Floyd can close the barber shop every first and third Thursday so he can go to the [council] meeting,” he said. “But that doesn’t work here.
“It’s a double-edged sword. I think a lot of the same people who would prefer that their council people had real-world jobs would also be very unhappy to be told by a council member for whom they were appealing for help that because they work, … they were too busy to help. That would not go over well. … That same person would burn down your house.”