THE BOSTON City Council’s quest for a bigger salary makes for a tale of breathtaking political incompetence. A body that never enjoyed high esteem anyway has managed to sully its reputation even further. The shame of that is Boston could use a strong and effective counterweight to the mayor. Instead we now have a council that appears weaker than ever.
Council President Bill Linehan first proposed raises of $25,000 in early September, a 29 percent gain over members’ current earnings of $87,500. It wasn’t only the size of the new salaries that startled. Linehan also proposed they become effective immediately.
The public outcry was predictable and justified. The State Ethics Commission got into the act as well, worrying that an immediate increase might violate state conflict-of-interest rules. Linehan backpedaled, agreeing to delay the effective date until after the next election and cutting the raise to $20,000. The 13-member body passed the measure 9-4.
Last week, Mayor Marty Walsh responded with a veto. Councilors perhaps could override him (although there’s some dispute about that). If they were smart, however, they would just let the matter go. Already, too much damage has been done.
Even in the best of circumstances, setting compensation for politicians is a hot-button issue. The money to pay for those salaries comes from taxpayers, many of whom are earning less than the people who represent them. The vote itself is, obviously, self-serving. And any time the issue comes up, it becomes a lightning rod for those who are unhappy with politics or politicians.
This is no secret to politicians, which is why the subject is approached in the most gingerly fashion possible. Many bodies use some external measures (such as inflation or changes to the gross domestic product) to adjust compensation. Others look to third parties (for example, a compensation commission of disinterested members) to make recommendations. And when compensation changes, it does so only slightly. None look for the gigantic increment that the council sought for itself.
Given this, the councilors’ approach to the subject looks especially inept: There was a cliff in front of them, they saw it and knew a fall would hurt, but they stepped over anyway.
Compound that with the fact that many residents have little idea what the council does (except, of course, to fight hard to raise its salary). The perception is that the body is weak and ineffectual, focused more on busy work than matters of actual substance.
There’s something to be said for that — and I say that as someone who was once a member of that body. The council meets in session just once a week. Except around budget season, committee hearings are relatively infrequent. Councilors spend their days appearing before the city’s liquor licensing board or zoning board of appeals, attending community meetings, or acting as go-betweens for residents and the city administration.
More fundamentally, the council has little formal power. Boston has what’s known as a “strong mayor” form of government. When it comes to the budget, for example, councilors can either approve or disapprove but, unlike most legislative bodies, they can’t create alternative budgets or specifically designate where funds should be spent. As a result, much of their power is of the “bully pulpit” sort, the kind that rests on moral authority and public credibility that — used effectively — allows councilors to be a meaningful check on mayoral power and city bureaucrats. But their foolish focus on compensation has now undercut that authority and credibility.
Indeed, one can manufacture a conspiracy here. Mayor Walsh faced a mini-crisis last spring when the council nearly failed to pass his first school budget. It was then he likely figured that, kind words about the council being a “vital partner” notwithstanding, it’s really a mayor’s opponent. What better way to eviscerate your opponent then to whisper sweet nothings about pay and stand back and watch the whole thing blow up? That didn’t happen, of course, but the effect is that same. The council’s embarrassment is Walsh’s gain. It’s also the city’s loss.
This column was first published in The Boston Globe on October 28, 2014.