The Mayor and Council Chair are not allowed to have any other employment, but the twelve members of the Council are not so constrained. As a result, they are paid $125,583 per year, a salary that puts them in the top 10% of DC taxpayers, and that is the second highest in the country for council members after Los Angeles, which is a much larger city than Washington. With no limit on outside employment, some members of the Council bring home very large additional salaries: the top four reported $280,000, $250,000, $200,000, and $190,000 in outside income. It should be noted that a majority of the council reported no outside employment income for 2010, indicating that they were apparently able to get by on their Council salary alone.
Despite these figures, a number of arguments are made in favor of allowing outside income for members of the Council. Let’s consider these arguments:
- The perspectives gained through outside employment enhance a councilmember’s Council service. It is no doubt true that a councilmember’s PRIOR occupation, whether as a lawyer, businessperson, doctor, or educator, provides valuable perspectives for members of the council. That does not mean, however, that it is essential to continue one’s job and draw a salary while serving as an elected member of the Council. There are continuing education programs, seminars, conferences and web-based programming that are readily available to those who want to “keep up”.
- Earning a living through another job renders the individual more independent from outside influence. This is akin to the argument that voters should prefer wealthy candidates because they don’t “owe anyone anything”. Despite its surface appeal, there is scant evidence to support this proposition. If talking about independent wealth, it may have more plausibility. But in the case of councilmembers receiving outside income, there is much more room for conflict of interest when attempting to serve the interests of both the public and the employer.
- Dedicated individuals are capable of handling the demands of two or more jobs. This may be true for some, but not for others, and it is doubtful that a meaningful standard can be devised and enforced as to who is sufficiently dedicated or capable to be able to handle the demands successfully. Perhaps this could be left for the voters to decide on an individual case based on their level of satisfaction with a councilmember’s performance. We prefer the position that the potential problems with outside employment outweigh the benefits.
- Abandoning one’s career to serve the public for a period of years is a huge sacrifice. In one sense this is true. However, the high demand by the private sector for people who have served in public office indicates that the knowledge and relationships developed in the course of being an elected official are considered very valuable. Public service is both a sacrifice and a great investment in one’s career, with the net benefit being on the side of the latter. It should also be said that public service is considered an honor worth some sacrifice.
- Conflicts of interest do not come only from outside employment. True, there are many sources of conflicts of interest. All of these conflicts should be disclosed and, when they exist, should require recusal. But career ambitions are a particularly important potential source of conflicts of interest. Just as federal officials place their investments in blind trusts to protect themselves from such conflicts, a temporary leave from one’s primary career while serving in public office serves to minimize such conflicts of interest, which can never be entirely eliminated.
We believe our Councilmembers are well compensated at annual salaries of $125,583. We recognize that serving as a Councilmember may be a financial sacrifice for some, but we believe that the intangible benefits it bestows at least offset whatever sacrifice there may be. And we hold strongly to the view that potential conflicts that may arise from outside employment justify a policy of banning such outside sources of income.
The draft bill of the Committee on Government Operations headed by Councilmember Muriel Bowser contains provisions that represent a substantial improvement over the current situation by requiring far greater disclosure of outside employment income than is currently the case. We support these changes, but we think they do not go far enough as regards councilmembers. Among other things, reporting would be required only at the end of each year. While such reports would be audited and made public, there would be a substantial period of time before auditors or the public would be informed of their contents. Finally, there appear to be no penalties in the relevant Chapter for failure to adequately and timely file the disclosure reports.
For the reasons stated above, we feel that the better course of action to simply ban all outside employment income.