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As a general-law city, West Covina operates through the Council-Manager form of municipal government. The five City Council members are elected to overlapping terms of four years and annually select one of their members to serve as Mayor.  . . . The City Council is the legislative body responsible for the overall policies and direction for the City. They are the citizens' representatives in local government.

City of West Covina:  Mayor & City Council

WestCovinaOrg.org

City Council Compensation:
Are councilmembers volunteers or employees?

Any discussion of city council compensation must start with taking a look at the role of councilmember in municipal government.  A councilmembers’ role, duties, and “job requirements” are very different from that of an employee.  Does the difference impact compensation?  This paper is the first in a series that looks at city council compensation.

Role of a councilmember:  Councilmembers are residents of a voting district who are elected by other residents to serve on the city council as a “board of director”.  In short, councilmembers are our neighbors.  Our neighbors come from all walks of life, run for a seat on the council for a variety of reasons,  and may have little to no understanding of how the public sector in general, and/or city government specifically, functions.

As a governing body, the city council’s number one responsibility is to hire a professional manager—the city manager—"to run the city so that the city council can focus on their role:  providing the vision, manager oversight and financial decision-maker on many mandated issues such as planning, budgeting and in some cases policy.”

“Running a city is complex with the endless set of rules and mandates along with opportunities for a conflict of interest if the ‘decision maker’ is unfairly engaged, creating the demand for a professional city manager.”    Unlike councilmembers, city employees are required to have specific skills, knowledge and ability to perform the job they are hired to do.

In the Council-Manager form of government, councilmembers are not to become directly involved in managing or directing staff.    When councilmembers ignore that principle, they not only undermine the city manager’s authority, they take on a ‘management role’ that should be out of bounds for elected officials and left to the professional manager and department heads.      City liability can increase and often results in needless lawsuits. 

Click on link to see table and three exhibits.

Table “City Council Influence on Department Head Hiring” sheds light on council involvement.

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Are councilmembers volunteers or employees?  Most residents, consider councilmembers volunteers, not employees.  It’s an understandable view because councilmembers are residents who typically hold a full-time job or are retired and volunteer to run for office for their own reason(s). Councilmembers are “hired” by the people via an election.  "Job performance varies greatly.

Legal perspective:  There is no “all-purpose” statute defining a councilmember.    Some laws applicable to employees are, however, applicable to councilmembers.  For example:

  • Since employers are liable for any volunteer or employee misconduct that occurs in the workplace, some laws do apply.  Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, (FEHA), councilmembers fall within the definition of supervisor because city councils typically have the authority to hire, fire, and issue direction to, at least the city manager.

  • Councilmembers are expected to follow certain principles in the workplace.  These principles include directing issues, assignments and follow-up requests only to the City Manager, not department heads or staff and following city and council rules and policies.    Elected officials who do not follow required workplace principles increase city liability.

  • Some employment laws apply to councilmembers.  For example, workers’ compensation applies to councilmembers but unemployment benefits do not.  Councilmembers are not entitled to leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Click on link to see table.

Table “Department Head and City Council Job Differences” highlights job responsibilities.

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Council compensation consists of two parts:  “pay” and “benefits” and varies by city.  Councilmembers do not receive a salary but receive a stipend, a monthly payment intended to cover their discretionary yet official expenses. The stipend amount is capped by law.

Councilmembers also receive an expense allowance.  In addition to the expense allowance, the City typically pays for council attendance at certain training sessions and various civic events. How these expenses are processed varies by council and staff.

Legally councilmembers may receive some employment benefits that employees receive, e.g., life insurance, dental, medical, etc. Again, this varies by city.  Some cities offer none.

Councilmembers may, upon their election to office, select to join CalPERS (California Public Employee Retirement System). They become vested after five (5) years of service.

Click on link to see table.

Table “West Covina City Council Comparable Compensation Survey:  Selected Cities” shows compensation variability.

The bottom line:  Councilmembers are in a unique category of their own.  They are neither volunteers or employees.  They are not answerable to a supervisor.  They are answerable to the people who voted them into office.

Our Concern

During the past few years, our city councilmembers have changed their role from “board of director” to getting involved into the details of running the city.  This practice not only raises city liability issues it also results in councilmembers spending excessive time involved in work the city manager and staff should handle and increases councilmember perceptions they are undercompensated. In effect, our city council is redefining their compensation as “pay.” 

Changes We Would Like to See

West Covina’s council must get back to the fundamentals of giving oversight to staff without getting involved into details.  Council compensation should be based on adequately covering official council expenses. It should be transparent. Council compensation should not be used as a recruitment tool to recruit candidates to run for office as the current council advocates.

Notes

    Smith, D., Former Mayor, City of Walnut.  Email to Phil Moreno email group discussion.  2023, November 18.

    League of California Cities.  Elected Officials and Employment Law:  When Rules Don’t Apply.  2021, April 20.

    www.calcities.org.

    League of California Cities.  “Your Role as a Local Elected Official.” Not dated. www.calcities.org    

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Prints this page,  each table, and the three exhibits in PDF format.

Update:  01/29/24 jp

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