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Wednesday, October 16,2013

Per-diem pay?

Lansing City Council candidates disagree on whether Council salaries should be tied to meeting attendance

by Andy Balaskovitz
About a month ago, 4th Ward Lansing City Council candidate Chong-Anna Canfora called for moving the Council to an attendance-based salary — an apparent jab at her opponent, Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, and her attendance record.

A bag of mixed reactions to the idea have come from incumbents and fellow candidates.

In City Pulse’s candidate questionnaires (available at lansingcitypulse.com), we asked candidates from each race: “Would you support moving City Council members to a per-diem system of pay, where they would not get paid for missed meetings? Why or why not?”

Of the eight candidates, five either support the idea (Canfora, At-Large candidate Ted O’Dell and 2nd Ward candidate Charles Hoffmeyer) or are OK with it but expressed concerns (Yorko and At-Large candidate Judi Brown Clarke). At-Large incumbent Brian Jeffries partially supports the idea, calling for a base salary and a per-diem supplement. At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar is opposed to the idea but offered an alternative, while 2nd Ward incumbent Tina Houghton is outright opposed.

City Council members are paid $20,200 a year for the part-time job. The president receives an additional $2,000 a year and the vice president an extra $750.

All four incumbents either oppose or are concerned about the idea of a strictly per-diem system, saying that committee and Council meeting attendance is but one aspect of the job. Brown Clarke joined this group, saying that a Council member’s schedule and full-time job should be taken into consideration.

“Council members do more work than just attend meetings,” Jeffries wrote. “I would consider a system whereby Council would receive a base pay supplemented by a per-diem pay based on a number of meetings attended. I would limit per-diem pay only to Council and Committee of the Whole meetings attended.”

Also, the City Charter allows the Council to come up with penalties for non-attendance, including “forfeiture of office.” Jeffries said he’d also “consider” such an ordinance.

Jeffries’ incumbent challenger, Dunbar, wrote: “Per-diem pay assumes the only work we do is attend official meetings on the 10th floor” of City Hall. … “If we’re going to change the system, let’s consider an hourly wage that accurately reflects the time we dedicate to serving our city.”

Houghton, who stood by her attendance record in the questionnaire, wrote: “Per-diem’ in this context is misleading because it only refers to work done at public meetings. The scope of our service is hardly limited (to) meeting attendance. In reality the majority (of) our work is done through neighborhood forums, community cleanups, research and resolving constituent concerns.”

While the incumbents see the idea as at least somewhat problematic, two of the other three challengers agree with Canfora’s proposal.

“An elected official’s responsibility in representing their community is to be present, to listen, to research, and to vote,” Hoffmeyer said. “I completely agree that there should be a financial penalty for not performing this function.”

Canfora and O’Dell attacked their opponents’ attendance record. A subsequent press release from the Canfora camp said Yorko missed 55 percent of her Public Safety Committee meetings in 2010 (Yorko’s first year in office). However, a check of Council records showed that Yorko actually missed 75 percent. Yorko missed 27 of 36 public safety meetings that year.

However, that committee, which Carol Wood chaired, also met far more times than other committees. The next closest (outside of Committee of the Whole) was the Development and Planning Committee, which oversees tax incentive requests, rezoning and special land use permits, which met 22 times. Yorko missed seven of those 22 meetings, Councilman Derrick Quinney missed six and Jeffries, the committee chairman, had zero absences.

“I think it’s interesting when you’re in a glass house to start throwing stones,” Yorko said Sunday on “City Pulse Newsmakers” in a joint appearance with Canfora. Then Yorko said Canfora’s attendance for the Ingham County Economic Development Board was 40 percent.

Canfora countered that it’s a voluntary, non-paid position. On Tuesday, Canfora said in a joint appearance with Yorko on WKAR’s “Current State” that she was at 70 percent of those meetings.

Yorko also said her full Council meeting attendance is 90 percent since she started. In her first three years in office, Yorko attended 87 percent of those meetings, according to Council staff figures.

Attendance records for 2013 were not immediately available.

Canfora defended her proposal. “Although a lot of constituent service work is done outside of meetings and wouldn’t be accounted for in a per diem system,” she wrote, “the per diem would incentivize officials to be present for important votes, briefings and policy development work that happens at council and in sub-committees.”

Meanwhile, O’Dell is on the offensive against Dunbar’s attendance record.

“She has missed over 30% of City Council meetings and even greater number of committee meetings,” he wrote.

“How can an elected official be a voice for the citizens if that person isn’t even in the room?” For the years 2010- 2012, Dunbar attended 89 percent of full Council meetings.

O’Dell said on “City Pulse Newsmakers” in July that his 30 percent figure came from a Lansing State Journal story quoting the late John Pollard. It was a mid-year tally from the first half of 2012 looking at full Council and Committee of the Whole meetings. By the end of 2012, Dunbar had missed 21 percent of full Council and Committee of the Whole meetings, according to Council staff figures.

“My record speaks for itself,” Dunbar said on the show. “The work we do is so much more significant than sitting in a chair on the 10th floor of City Hall. To call attendance the No. 1 platform of a campaign — I will gladly stand on the eight years I’ve been there. If someone looks back in 20 years, they’re not going to look at attendance records.”

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