Easy Street

City Council jobs can be a breeze

By R.E. Graswich
June 2022

City Council members come and go, but one tradition never changes: pretending City Council jobs are hard.

When Kevin Johnson was mayor, I worked as his special assistant. The job was fun, filled with interesting people and problems. Being a staff member is not the same as elected. But I can’t call it hard.

Working for Kevin was difficult, but nothing like bartending or nursing or driving a delivery van. It was challenging because Kevin always wanted to know where I was and what I was doing, even when he didn’t need me, which was most of the time.

I never worked for anyone who worried so much about my whereabouts. And I wasn’t ready for a boss who could sense whenever I stepped away from the office. As soon as the door closed behind me, he would text, “Where are you?”

The June primary election for several City Council seats made me think about the tradition of pretending City Council jobs are hard. The council gets a facelift this year, with veterans Angelique Ashby, Jay Schenirer and Jeff Harris leaving. Eric Guerra might go too, depending on how his state Assembly race turns out.

Newcomers eager to replace Ashby, Schenirer and Harris have practiced their lines about how hard they will work. Incumbents are experts at this. They memorize the gospel about countless hours studying staff reports and meeting constituents.

It’s mostly fiction. In fact, being on City Council is one of the easiest jobs in town. The work is easy because there’s no job description, no regular hours, no enforceable expectations and no boss.

Once they get elected, City Council members can work as much as they please. Most members take the job seriously. But a lazy member can hide for years, unnoticed. If a better job exists for a lazy person, I’d like to see it.

In my time at City Hall, Kevin worked insane hours, even when he didn’t get anything done. He was wired that way, unable to sit quietly and gaze out the window (skills I excel at).

I thought Kevin’s energetic approach might rub off on his eight City Council colleagues. He had no impact. Lazy members stayed lazy. Dedicated members continued to plug away at their favorite neighborhood projects. All were oblivious to Kevin’s eternal quest for big league urgency.

The City Charter, which serves as the city’s playbook, is the problem. The charter covers plenty of ground. It describes how fiscal administration is supposed to work and how contracts should be dished out.

The charter describes several duties for the mayor, notably the right to propose ordinances and make appointments. The charter requires the mayor to “devote his or her full time and attention to the duties of the office.” That’s as close as it gets to real expectations.

As for councilmember workloads, the charter is silent. Councilmembers don’t have to devote one minute to the “attention and duties of the office,” unless they want to. They must occasionally attend council meetings, but that’s it. They can work side jobs and still pick up their city salaries of $96,257. For his fulltime service, the mayor gets $145,440.
To answer phones and deal with the public, councilmembers typically hire two full-time staff members. They each have office budgets of $592,697 to blow however they wish.

With elections underway, I’d like to tell voters how to identify lazy councilmembers. Here’s what I know: Politicians who are brilliant campaigners and successful money collectors are often lazy in office. Campaigning, raising cash and legislating are separate skills. Few succeed at all three.

You should seek a councilmember who works hard to get elected, but avoids special interest groups and doesn’t try to impress you with how hard they work. If a candidate promises to be the hardest working person on City Council, they are lying. Vote for someone else.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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