The Minneapolis City Council began the process of forging a different process to make its next pay raise more transparent than its last pay raise.
An ordinance introduced by Council Members Andrew Johnson and Cam Gordon was sent to city staff Tuesday with a direction to draft language that will consider a task force of residents to discuss pay raises when the issue comes up again in four years. The same ordinance will try to provide more public participation — at least awareness — by requiring raises go through a committee that would conduct hearings.
The changes would increase openness, though based on what happened at the council’s final meeting of 2017, it’s a pretty low bar. At that meeting, Council President Barbara Johnson verbally added an item to the final agenda that gave each of the council members to be sworn in the following month a $10,000 annual pay raise. Newly elected Mayor Jacob Frey would receive the same pay hike.
Once sworn in, Frey would be paid $126,528. Council members — including seven who voted for the raise — would be paid at a rate of $98,696, up from the current pay of $88,695 once they were sworn in. But because the raises were approved a week after the 2018 budget was adopted, the same council action directed city staff to cut various departmental budgets to find the $140,000 price of the raises.
Johnson, who had been defeated for re-election, orchestrated the raises. And it was done so as to draw little or no attention to the action — put onto the end of a crowded agenda of mostly routine items and after a several hours’ long farewell to departing Mayor Betsy Hodges and five council members.
The council president had worked with some council members, including Frey, to craft the raises. Other council members said they were told of the action only the day before the final council meeting, when they were assured that she had enough votes to pass the pay changes, information she gathered in one-on-one conversations with council members.
Other than a rationale for the raise by Barbara Johnson — council pay had fallen behind peer cities and behind senior city managers — there was no discussion or debate by council members. The vote was unanimous, although Council Member Abdi Warsame was absent from the meeting.
If obscuring the raise was the intent, and emails among the players shows that it was, it almost worked. There was no media coverage in the days after the vote — only a week later when MinnPost reviewed what is called the action agenda , which reports on how the council voted was the issue reported.
“I think everyone can agree that the process left more to be desired,” said Andrew Johnson to explain his ordinance. “It makes sense to formalize this that creates a process around it and elevates the level of transparency and even tries to come up with a better method of determining the appropriate amount of compensation.”
Why did no council member oppose the raise or even express concerns about the process? Andrew Johnson said politicians don’t enjoy voting on their own compensation or determine the amount. He heard from Barbara Johnson the day before the council meeting that she intended to offer the measure that wasn’t yet on the council agenda.
“The decision really is do you vote yes and adjust this to be in more in line with peer cities or vote no because it’s an imperfect process and kick the can down the road for four years and watch the gap widen,” Andrew Johnson said.
In a lengthy blog post on Jan. 2, Gordon called it “one of the more disconcerting and disturbing votes I took in 2017.” He wrote that state law requires that pay raises “not be increased or diminished during the term for which such officer has been elected.” That means that an outgoing council can raise the pay for the next council only. Because of the timing of the vote as set in state law, five of those voting on the matter wouldn’t receive the raise because they were leaving office. It would be enjoyed by five people elected in November but who hadn’t yet been sworn in.
Gordon, who has served since 2006, wrote that in the past the process had either gone through the Ways and Means committee or at least — as in 2013 — been on the published agenda of the last meeting. He said he first learned of the raise plan the day before the Dec. 15 meeting.
“Now I felt cornered and conflicted,” Gordon wrote. “My options were to vote no, abstain, or vote yes. I felt if I voted no and then kept the increase it would be hypocritical. If it passed and was deemed to be justified (which I was assured it would be), not taking it also seemed unfair to my family and myself.”
He wrote that he would work with Council Member Andrew Johnson to improve the process “to make sure that this kind of last minute and closed process is never used again.”