Janesville City Council members are OK with no pay

Print Print
Sunday, December 23, 2007
— Janesville gets off cheap when it comes to its council members.

Council members get paid nothing.



The lack of pay is apparently unusual in the state. Council members serving 13 peer cities all are paid, with Green Bay council members getting almost $10,000 a year.

Is no pay for Janesville’s council members good or bad? Does it hurt the way Janesville functions?

Some believe it hurts a council’s economic diversity because not all can afford to run. Others believe unpaid volunteers serve in the most altruistic way with the good of the community at heart.

But Janesville council members don’t even get gas money to get to meetings or drive around the city to investigate an issue. They must pay for babysitters so they can attend meetings.

A few times a year, the city might splurge for dinner at a study session. But that’s often a soggy sub or the occasional pan of lasagna from Olive Garden.

Dennis Dresang, a political science professor at UW-Madison, said Janesville’s lack of pay for elected officials—school board members don’t get paid, either—probably is a result of the city’s steadfast adherence to its council-manager system of government.

That government was advanced during the progressive movement early last century and was embraced by Janesville. The city has held fast to its tenets even as other cities in the state have moved to the center.

“Janesville does have this history of being a pure, progressive (government),” Dresang said. “… Other cities in Wisconsin didn’t really go quite that far. I think it’s a legacy of that period.”

Mixed feelings

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, has mixed feelings on paying those who run for government.

Often, what originally was meant to cover expenses gets converted to a flat rate and becomes a quasi-salary that increases because everyone else’s salary is going up, he said.

“What was meant to be a volunteer, very part-time, citizen responsibility starts taking on the trappings of a professional political position,” Berry said.

Serving in the Legislature, for example, has become a full-time job with super benefits. And the organization has become “in some ways, sort of dysfunctional,” Berry said.

“Thomas Jefferson was very nervous about having something other than the citizen-volunteer official.

“Covering people’s expenses for immediate expenses—mileage, whatever, I can understand. But when it starts to become a source of income, I think it starts to change their behavior, and they start to want to keep the jobs rather than serve in the job.”

“… It changes the psychology.

“Too many public bodies have the same people for a number of years, and it gets very insular and clubby.”

Marilynn Jensen has served on the Rock County Board for 22 years, and members get mileage and $50 a meeting.

She was against a recent move to increase pay.

“I just feel it should be more of a voluntary contribution to the community,” Jensen said.

She worries that if it gets much higher, people might choose to serve for the money rather than for the good of the community.

Craig DeGarmo, a current council member, has mixed feelings about being paid, too.

“I think it’s the volunteerism that I like the most about it,” DeGarmo said of his eight years on the council.

“The people who do it truly care about the community. I think it goes to the core of what they believe versus doing it just to supplement some sort of income.

“You probably couldn’t pay me enough to actually make it (the reason).”

Covering expenses might be a valid issue, though, because that could discourage people from running.

On the other hand, paying people might give them a reason to stay on longer.

“I don’t think longer terms are better,” DeGarmo said. He is not seeking re-election to give others chances to serve.

Councilwoman Amy Loasching punches out of work to attend council meetings, so she had to consider the financial impact on her family when she ran.

Possibly, the city would see more diversity if members were paid, she said. Conversely, the council might continue to get dedicated people because there is no salary.

For her, pay is not a big issue. She’d rather see that money go to city services, such as plowing streets.

Councilman Bill Truman said he ran to serve the community.

A bit of pay might help with expenses, but he doesn’t think it would improve diversity.

“I don’t think anybody could run for council and make a living on it,” he said.

Some pay is good

Rich Eggleston, spokesman for the Alliance of Cities, said he is surprised Janesville has no trouble attracting candidates.

“If you’re asking somebody to give up leisure time to do, in effect, what’s all our civic duty, … there’s nothing wrong with all of us paying,” he said. “The people doing the public’s business should receive a token amount for doing that.”

Not enough to buy a new car, obviously, or to break the public’s piggy bank. But enough to at least cover costs and maybe leave someone with a few extra bucks to go out to dinner, he said.

Dresang said diversity has emerged as a concern in recent years.

“When you don’t provide a modest amount of pay to cover some expenses … you really make it pretty impossible for certain kinds of people to serve in those kinds of positions,” he said.

Otherwise, the public is “not only in a position where we’re asking them to give up their time and energy and thoughts,” he said. The public is asking the elected officials to dip into their own pockets.

Richard Ott, Rock County Board chairman, said everybody’s time is worth something.

“These good folks could be at home with spouses, with kids, any number of clubs,” he said.

“It’s a ‘thank you’ is really what it amounts to.”

And, it pays for gas and other incidentals of the job, such as dry cleaning and buying clothes.

“You can’t live on the money you get on the county board. You’d be better off getting a part time job.”

Greg Addie, a former city councilman, said serving is a sacrifice that should be rewarded.

He also believes a stipend would improve diversity.

“We have to get people who can’t necessarily afford to be on the council but need to be on the council.

“Without an economic incentive, what we’ll always have on the council is upper middle class to wealthy people because they can afford to be on the council.”

Last updated: 10:25 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

Print Print