Pensacola’s city council is too large, and the low salary paid to council members effectively bars many citizens from running for office, says Pensacola city councilman Larry B. Johnson.
In meetings next week, Johnson will propose eliminating two more seats from the city council, which is currently in the process of transitioning from nine seats to seven seats after voters approved a charter amendment in 2013. Johnson says that a five-member council is even better, arguing that most other cities Pensacola’s size have five-member councils.
“Seven council members is still too big for a city our size,” said Johnson. “A five-member council would be more manageable, more focused, and more productive. I think people want to see smaller, more efficient government.” Johnson points to Bradenton, Fla. as a model; the city’s population is comparable to Pensacola’s and uses a similar “strong mayor” form of government with a five-member city council.
At the same time, Johnson is also looking to increase the salary paid to city council members from $13,998.14 — where it has remained for the last decade — to around $30,000 a year. Johnson argues that the low salary makes it “economically infeasible” for many citizens, including working-class Pensacolians and young professionals, to make the time commitment involved with serving as a council member. Increasing the salary would open the door for more Pensacolians to run, Johnson says, leading to more diversity and talent on the council.
Pensacola city council members are among the lowest-paid elected officials in the Pensacola metro area. Escambia County Commissioners earn $76,960 annually, while Santa Rosa commissioners earn $62,606 a year. Escambia County School Board members and Emerald Coast Utilities Authority board members earn $37,266 a year. Each of those boards is a five-member board.
Johnson’s argument that the low council salary discourages citizens from running could carry some weight. Historically, there is rarely competition for council seats, and it’s not uncommon for incumbents to be re-elected without opposition. Johnson himself was re-elected without opposition in 2014, and while four city council seats are up for re-election this November, no one other than the four incumbents have filed to run.
“I’m not going to be on the council much longer,” said Johnson, whose current term will expire in 2018. “I want to make sure that everyone in our city has the opportunity to serve on the council.”
Again pointing to Bradenton as a benchmark, Johnson is recommending the council’s salary be increased to $30,802 annually, the same amount paid to each of Bradenton’s five city council members. Such an increase for the current seven-member council would cost about $117,000 a year, though Johnson says the cost savings from reducing the council by two members would cut that figure to about $41,000 a year.
However, voting to raise one’s salary is an awkward and potentially unpopular move for any politician to make, and Johnson may have a tough time convincing his fellow council members to do it. “I don’t think increasing council salaries will make council more effective or council members more effective,” said Councilwoman Sherri Myers. “I can’t see asking the citizens to double council salaries when council has decreased citizen’s access to their representatives,” Myers added, referring to the council’s decisions in recent years to meet once a month instead of twice.
The salary change can be done with by ordinance — which involves readings at two council meetings – but Johnson’s plan for a five-member city council would have to be approved by voters as an amendment to the city’s charter. Johnson hopes that his fellow council members will agree to put the issue on the ballot later this year. Should council members increase their salary, however, the city charter says that the change can’t take effect until after the next general election in November.