Raise council's pay and power, committee says

Modesto's City Council members should have more say over the city budget, and they should earn more money for the work they were elected to do.

Those recommendations are in a report released Friday by the Modesto Charter Review Committee that could shape government reform measures for the next two years.

It aims to improve government accountability by setting new standards for elected representatives and high-ranking city officials.

Its highlights include setting a course for Modesto to replace citywide council elections with district races, creating a framework for involving the mayor's office in budget negotiations and instituting an independent city auditor.

"Modesto's at the size of city where you're going through these growing pains and you have to find a way to make the government operate a little better," committee Chairman George Petrulakis said.

The report's conclusions must win the approval of city voters for them to take effect. Key components could appear on the February ballot if the council follows the timeline the committee recommended.

$88,800 suggested for mayor

The charter committee, whose members were appointed last year by the council, did not recommend a specific salary level for the elected leaders. It wrote that their pay is inadequate.

It suggests Modesto create a five-member commission to set salaries. That group would have the authority to set the mayor's pay at one-half of a state judge's salary, about $88,800 this year instead of $9,600.

Salary commissioners could peg the council members' salaries to one-half of Modesto's median family income, which could raise their pay to $26,800 from $9,600.

Current council members said the mayor's salary of $800 a month does not reflect the work the job demands.

They said Mayor Jim Ridenour typically works 40 to 50 hours a week. Those hours are not optional, because the mayor is expected to attend city events and lead the council.

"The mayor cannot do his job without it being full time," Councilman Bob Dunbar said. He said he was ambivalent about whether the council's pay should rise.

Councilman Will O'Bryant said raising mayoral and council salaries could open the elected positions to working people. Three council members are retired. Three own businesses and set their hours. Councilwoman Kristin Olsen is the only one of the seven who holds a full-time job.

"It would raise the level of the candidates," O'Bryant said. "People don't want to do something where they could be losing money."

Charter committee member Carolina Bernal said she wanted the report to spark changes that would elevate council members from "titleholders" to people who have the tools to lead the city.

"Everyone thinks the mayor is the man, and that's the furthest thing from the truth," said Bernal, the director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

More power for the council?

Modesto's form of government puts most of the authority to lead City Hall in the hands of the city manager. Some large cities, such as Fresno, have moved to "strong mayor" systems that allow mayors more leeway to hire top officials and set budgets.

The charter committee said Modesto does not need to move to a strong mayor method.

Nonetheless, the committee recommended that Modesto increase the power of council members by:

Mandating the mayor's early involvement in city budget talks. Council members say City Manager George Britton runs an open government, but there's nothing in the city's charter that would prevent someone in his position from excluding elected representatives from financial talks until they vote on adopting a budget.

Requiring the council to conduct annual performance evaluations of the city manager, city attorney and city clerk. Dunbar said the council does that, but the charter does not demand it.

Asking the council to write objectives for each city department and requiring the city manager to perform annual reviews of department heads based on those standards. As is, the council's only authority to force change is firing the city manager, city attorney or city clerk.

Other recommendations in the report include:

Doing away with City Council runoff elections, but not until after voters choose a course on adopting district campaigns.

Giving city department dep-uty directors disciplinary authority over their employees. Only the city manager and department heads now have that power.

Establishing an independent city auditor. Currently, Modesto City Clerk Jean Morris performs that job.

Some urgency involved

Britton's January retirement lends a sense of urgency to some of the reforms. Council members have said they cannot select his successor until the city has a clear form of government.

Britton said a strong mayor system could dissuade experienced city managers from applying for the job but that the method detailed in the charter report likely would not turn away too many candidates.

"It recommends the new political paradigm, which has a much higher expectation of accountability and responsibility both for the electeds and the senior staff," he said.

The charter report recommends that the council should place two measures on the February ballot.

One would follow up on the district elections advisory measure the charter committee wrote for the November ballot by instituting the method that voters favor. The advisory measure offers voters a choice of two styles of district races.

The other measure the charter committee would like to see on the February ballot would create the salary-setting commission and raise mayoral and council authority.

The committee plans to present its report to the City Council Sept. 25.

The Charter Review Committee is scheduled to take comments on its report Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in Room 2008 of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.