Pricing the Pols: How Much for a Beep?

Categories: Citystate
It's likely that New York City might someday have a mayor who can't afford to turn down the $195,000 annual salary that municipal law awards for the job, which Mayor Bloomberg performs for only a dollar a year. Mayor Mike is clearly under-compensated. The question is: Would his full-salaried successor also be underpaid?

Right now a city commission is quietly looking at that question and others related to the paychecks that city pols earn. Word is that the Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation Levels of Elected Officials—which has held one public meeting, according to watchdog groups—will report its recommendations in early August, for the mayor and then the City Council to act upon if they choose. (Voice calls to two of the commission's three members, Chelsea Piers co-founder Tom Bernstein and New York City Mission Society Executive Director Stephanie Palmer, were not returned, so we've no specifics on what will come or when.)

For most of us, $195,000 would be a very pretty paycheck. For the Yankees backup catcher Kelly Stinnett, it'd be a third of what he's making this season. Of course, the mayor doesn't have to try to tell Randy Johnson what to throw, but Stinnett doesn't run a $54 billion budget providing services to 8 million people spread over 307 square miles. It's been seven years since elected officials in the city (including the mayor; comptroller [$160,000]; public advocate [$150,000]; borough presidents [$135,000]; and district attorneys [$150,000]) got a raise, and in that time, their purchasing power has slipped about 18 percent.

But the question of a raise gets a little more complicated when it comes to City Council members, who make a base salary of $90,000. For one thing, very few members (only five out of 51) make only the base salary; the rest receive stipends for their work as council leaders or committee chairpersons, ranging from $4,000 for lesser committees to $28,500 for the speaker. For another, city council members are part-time employees and therefore can hold outside jobs, and in the most recent reporting year 11 did. That raises the concerns about conflicts of interest or competing demands on councilmembers' time.

Of course, 40 councilmembers do not work outside City Hall. And most who do don't make very much. Robert Jackson and Larry Seabrook, report only a few thousand dollars in income from teaching. Kendall Stewart billed as a podiatrist, took income from a café and had some real estate interests. Brooklyn's Bill de Blasio picked up between $5,000 and $35,000 (the members report their income in ranges) in 2004 as a consultant for presidential candidate John Edwards. Lewis Fidler's legal work placed him in the six-figures neighborhood. David Yassky made a token amount from a real estate partnership, and Peter Vallone, Jr., has reported small earnings from his family law firm and a real estate entity.

But others had more significant income streams from outside the council. Dominic Recchia has reported rental and sales income from real estate, along with between $100,000 and $250,000 from his law practice. Michael McMahon reports a similar amount from his law firm on Staten Island. David Weprin in 2004 made up to $320,000 in 2004 from legal work and his position as vice president of an investment bank, Sterne, Agee & Leach. And Oliver Koppell, in 2004 reported up to $290,000 from his own firm, his wife's, and the partnership of Leavitt, Koppell & Duane.

In his filing, Koppell states that his firm had "no cases before city or state agencies" and that the partnership "excludes me from participating in or gaining income from any matter the firm had involving the city of New York." Other council members have also erected barriers to work that might cause a conflict; McMahon's 2005 opponent said his legal work wasn't an issue in the race because his attendance was very good. However, the council members themselves are the ones who define the barriers, and there's no outside monitoring. And in the case of lawyers—each with a list of clients whom they don't identify—there's the possibility that payment for "legal work" could be a loophole in the city's campaign finance law.

"We are troubled by the several members of the Council who earn other employment-related income, but provide less than whole time attention to fulfilling their responsibilities because of the distraction that results from being allowed to work outside of the Council," was how Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, put it in testimony to the commission last month. But Dadey didn't call for a ban on outside income, because until the City Council job is redefined as "full-time" that doesn't seem fair. With term limits restricting council members to eight or ten years at City Hall, it's reasonable for people to want to keep a hand in the job they will return to when their public service is done. Otherwise, City Council membership might be restricted to people who can afford to give up their careers for years, or who are intent on shopping for another elected post when their council time is done.

That's why NYPIRG's Gene Russianoff suggestion was interesting: "Why not follow the pattern in other legislatures of limiting the amount of outside income that can be earned? That would allow Council Members to have some additional employment experience, but insure largely full-time service."

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