By Gail Wallace, LWVO President
Oakland’s City Charter is the City’s primary governing document. Among many other directives, the Charter establishes how the Mayor will be elected and how the mayoral salary will be set and adjusted.
At first glance, the process seems straightforward:
The salary shall be set by the Council, which shall be not less than 70% nor more than 90% of the average salaries of City Managers'/Chief Executive Officers of California cities within the three immediate higher and the three immediate lower cities in population to Oakland, The Mayor's salary shall be reviewed by the City Council in odd-numbered years and may be adjusted by the Council as provided for herein. Section 300, Oakland City Charter (emphasis added)
Two things are complicating the 2023 biennial review. The first is that it is occurring in the context of a historical budget deficit in Oakland that has prompted significant and difficult budget decisions across City operations. In that context, any salary increase probably should receive additional scrutiny. However, the Charter doesn’t make exceptions for tough fiscal circumstances and the City Administrator’s calculations indicate that the relevant average is $308,860.61. The mayoral salary would have to increase by $13,202.00 to equal 70% of that average.
The second complicating factor is that the City Administrator proposes that the City Council increase the mayoral salary maximally to 90% of the average, rather than a lesser percentage. That would mean a raise of $74,975 annually. The Administrator’s rationale is that the mayoral salary should be greater than the salary of any employee reporting to the Mayor. That is not a criterion identified in the Charter. However, the Charter doesn’t specify any criteria for deciding the appropriate adjustment within the 70 to 90 percent range. In fact, Section 202 of the Charter only says that the Mayor shall not receive an annual cost of living increase.
The debate has engendered a closer look at Section 300 and raised questions about this provision, which has not been amended since March 2004. The primary question is why the Charter specifies the salaries of city administrators rather than mayors as the relevant comparable salaries. City administrators are professionals who typically command higher salaries than mayors according to various commentators. (This has been true in Oakland itself.) A second question is whether any amendments should eliminate or reduce the discretion over the 70 to 90 percent range or, at least, clarify what factors should guide a decision.
The League supports paying sufficient compensation to attract and retain qualified individuals throughout City government, including those in elected positions. The devil is in the details of finding the appropriate comparable salaries and clarifying all factors that should figure in exercising any discretion written into the Charter. A ballot measure would be required to update this provision and resolve these questions as all changes to the Charter require voters’ approval. For the moment, there is a strong argument for doing the minimum required, which is to raise the salary to the 70% level, and resolve the Charter questions in a 2024 ballot measure.