Let the voters decide.
That’s never a bad strategy, especially when changes in the governing process are under consideration.
And in Killeen, that certainly appears to be the case as of late.
At Tuesday’s Killeen City Council workshop, the prospect of increasing compensation for the mayor and city council members came up — a change that would require adjustments to the city charter.
Those changes would necessitate a charter election, and council members set the wheels in motion for such an initiative, with a motion of direction to put proposed charter changes before voters by the May 2022 election.
Would voters approve increasing the compensation for the city’s office holders? It is currently capped at $100 per month for council members and $200 monthly for the mayor.
It’s hard to say where Killeen voters would come down on the issue, since cities vary widely in how they deal with compensation for elected officials.
In Temple and Waco, for example, elected officials receive no compensation, and in Belton and Abilene, council members and the mayor each get $1 per year.
In Harker Heights, council members receive $80 per month and the mayor gets $100 monthly. In Copperas Cove, council members receive $25 per meeting and the mayor gets $50 per meeting, excluding same-day workshops.
But in large metro areas, it’s an entirely different story.
For example, Dallas pays its council members $37,500, Houston pays $56,000 and Austin shells out $69,885 annually for each council member. And mayors are even better compensated. In Austin, the mayor earns $81,344, and Houston pays out $209,000. Obviously, in these towns, elected leaders are considered full-time executives — and they are paid as such.
But Killeen is in that gray area, with a growing population of 150,000, but far smaller than a major metropolitan city that would require salaried office holders.
Of course, whether a pay increase makes the list of propositions put before the voters would be up to a charter review committee, and ultimately the council members themselves.
Exactly what the council decides to place on a potential ballot will be a reflection of who is in office at the time, so a lot may depend on who wins the four district seats up for election in three weeks.
The emphasis among some current council members seems to be on giving the council more say in the decision-making process, and perhaps increasing the mayor’s authority as well.
This dynamic has played out in the past two weeks, especially in response to City Manager Kent Cagle’s decision to promote the city’s public works director to assistant city manager. The proposed promotion was not officially announced to the council until Tuesday’s workshop session, and council members also learned that a nationwide, taxpayer-funded candidate search yielded 59 applicants for the position, of whom six were interviewed by video.
Now, with the council set to vote on the appointment on Tuesday — at a proposed salary that is $15,000 higher than what was advertised for the position — some council members have asked to see the resumes of the finalists for the job. At first, that request was denied, but on Friday, the city provided the documents. According to one council member, some of the applicants were “incredibly qualified.”
The big question is, how will the new information translate when it comes time to vote on the appointment?
Killeen’s charter authorizes the city council to hire and fire the city manager. But it also gives the city manager the authority to hire staff without council confirmation.
The council does have final authority over the hiring of department heads, assistant city managers and the city secretary. But is that authority enough of a check on the city manager’s power?
Obviously, any adjustments to the council’s oversight function would have to come through a charter amendment — and again, the final say-so would come from the voters.
Giving the voters more of a say is at the heart of a controversial charter amendment on the May 1 ballot in Austin. The proposed amendment, Proposition F, would make the mayor the city’s chief executive instead of hiring a city manager. The move would allow residents to directly elect the person who runs the city, although the change would eliminate checks and balances held by the council.
Would Killeen voters approve such a radical change to the city charter? And what other changes are likely to appear on a ballot next spring?
At this point, it’s hard to say.
Most adjustments to Killeen’s charter have been minor — removing outdated references, aligning city and state requirements, and cleaning up vague language.
But there have been some big changes.
In 2005, Killeen voters approved the switch to single-member districts, in which candidates represent the area in which they live, and only voters in that area are eligible to cast ballots in that election.
Three other council seats and the mayor’s seat remained at-large, elected by voters across the city.
In 2013, voters approved a whopping 33 amendments, including one requiring the Killeen municipal judge be a licensed attorney and another that the municipal court must be a court of record. The closest margin was 69 votes, with voters agreeing to expand check-writing authority for the assistant city manager.
Other big changes were proposed but didn’t make it to the ballot for a public vote — including expanding the number of district seats to six and increasing the terms of office to three years for the council and mayor.
If the current council does opt to move forward with a charter review, the process could be lengthy, depending on the scope of the review.
Prior to the 2013 charter vote, the council took more than six months to complete the process — beginning with the selection of a citizen-led charter review committee and ending with the council voting on which changes to include on the spring ballot.
The big question is whether any of the recent transparency questions involving the city manager will translate into proposed charter amendments regarding council oversight.
Again, much depends on how the current areas of friction are addressed going forward, as well as who takes the four council seats up for election in May.
Ultimately, the public will decide how much pay — and how much authority — council members should have, and that’s as it should be.
But just as voters have the power to accept or reject changes to the city charter, they also have the power to choose the council members behind the process.
No matter how much compensation our elected officials receive for their service, they still work for us.