Rochester City Council’s Big Pay Raise Leads to Big Campaign Issue

The big pay increase the Rochester City Council bestowed on itself and Mayor Kim Norton last winter raised eyebrows even in prosperous Med City. The council’s initial proposal to double the mayor’s salary and bump their own paychecks 140 percent led to a backlash against city hall just before Christmas. In its wisdom city council members scaled back to more modest high double-digit percentage raises for themselves ($21,712 to $39,420), the city council president ($27,743 to $47,300) and mayor ($37,657 to $65,700).

Problem solved? Not exactly. The clumsy way in which the council awarded themselves quantum pay raises their constituents could only dream of has made it a significant campaign issue in the four seats before residents in the August 11 primary, according to the Rochester Post Bulletin.

Rochester City Council President Randy Staver predicted council salaries would be a factor heading into this year’s elections.

“I do believe it will be a topic discussed during the campaign, and I will say that it isn’t one where everyone agrees,” he said prior to deciding not to seek another term. “During our discussions I heard feedback ranging from it is too little, too much or, more often, just poorly timed.”

Staver was one of two council members to vote against the increases approved in January…

The controversy continues to simmer over compensation for a job that no one at city hall has ever determined should be classified as a full or part-time position. But some candidates entered the race specifically due to the issue, viewing it as a sign their elected officials are out of touch with the public and the city’s priorities.

In the only election with an incumbent on the ballot, challenger Mark Bransford cited the salary increases as a campaign topic, stating he would return anything earned beyond $21,712 each year.

“The pay raise is just one issue that prompted me to run,” he said, adding that he’d work to rescind it. “It underscores my concern with the city council’s rigid, top down approach to governance, which must change.”

He said he views the council position as a part-time job.

The council member who first proposed the super-sized pay increase, Michael Wojcik, appears to be feeling the heat as the lone incumbent facing voters this year.

“There appears to be people running for office who have never championed any cause, participated in any community effort, but are only there to complain about council members being paid $39,000 per year,” he said. “What happens when these individuals who lack understanding of other issues are needed to lead?”

“This is a great issue if you want to get people riled up, but not a great issue if you care about leading a community,” he added.

Yet the president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, Kathleen Harrington, sees it as a turning point in the city’s approach to governance.

“I am angry about how the pay raise was handled,” she said. “I think local government is a calling for service, not a career. To me, service means meeting the needs of others — not yourself — especially when so many are suffering.”

She said she would rescind the raise and begin again with a transparent process to determine appropriate pay.

Other candidates say they couldn’t afford to run without the higher pay that goes with the job. Clearly the true cost of the generous pay increases for Rochester city councilors may not be fully calculated until voters have their say in August and November.