The Durham City Council is an elite group: attorney, attorney, Duke professor, pastor, “non-profit administrator,” consultant and a game developer.
The lofty jobs reflect a disparity between the city’s elected officials and their constituents. It also reflects the reality of the demands of serving on the Council.
Of the six members that spoke to the 9th Street Journal, four—Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, Mark-Anthony Middleton and Charlie Reece—agreed that it is essentially a full-time job and it is difficult to serve unless you’re independently wealthy.
“It’s a full-time job—or it ought to be a full-time job, given the size of the city, its rate of its growth and the enormity of the operation,” Middleton said. “It’s billed as a part-time job, but if you’re going to do it justice, it’s not a part-time job.”
Mayor Steve Schewel and Council Member Vernetta Alston were more skeptical about that notion, but even they are open to changes to make the office more accessible.
“Should this be something where people are expected to do it full-time and make a living? To me, that’s definitely an open question,” Schewel told the 9th Street Journal.
Job has turned full-time
A spot on the City Council was supposed to be part-time—and pay accordingly. But with the burgeoning city approaching a population of 270,000, demands on the Council have grown, leading council members to say it’s really a full-time job.
“Historically, I don’t think our role was supposed to be conceived of as a full-time job. But Durham has grown exponentially. Our problems are bigger,” Caballero said. “I don’t know if there was intent when it was created that they only wanted a certain profile. But It has limited who is on Council.”
In addition to biweekly City Council meetings and weekday afternoon work sessions that can each last several hours, council members are expected to meet with constituents and represent the city at community events. They get “countless requests” for their time and each serve on five to seven Council committees, Middleton said.
They’re never off duty, either.
“You’re trying to put ice cream in your mouth and somebody’s asking you about property taxes,” Middleton said.
All that time adds up. And that prevents a large segment of Durham residents from being able to afford the time commitment.
It pays just over just over $21,000 annually—an obstacle for those without independent wealth. Even the mayor makes just $25,084.
“Right now…you’re being excluded economically from the ability to represent the community, unless you have a certain amount of economic privilege—or you’ll run yourself ragged trying to work the Council job and have a full-time job,” Johnson said.
Reece was the general counsel for a pharmaceutical company and tried to make both the Council and his full-time legal job work. Over time, the Harvard graduate couldn’t swing it. Reece said he mostly knew what he signed up for when he decided to run for the job, but it ended up being somewhat more time-consuming than he had previously thought.
“At times the combined workload made it difficult to spend as much time with my family as I would have liked,” Reece said. “That’s not to say that anyone should feel sorry for me.”
City Council members are supposed to be able to keep their outside jobs. But that hasn’t happened for Reece and several other council members.
“The people of the city of Durham demand more than that from their Council members, and the job reflects that reality even though the pay does not,” Reece said. “Unless you’re independently wealthy, or retired, or have a spouse or partner who earns enough money to support your family, it’s very hard to make this work.”
Also a pastor and a radio show host, Middleton said he spends more than 40 hours per week on his City Council work. He doesn’t have a family or kids and loves politics, so he doesn’t mind.
Another barrier: meetings are often held during the day when many people are working.
“If we want….to say we’re a super progressive city—and in many ways we are—then all kinds of folks need to be able to serve,” Caballero said.
The wealthy run government nationwide
Across the nation, elected offices tend to be dominated by the well-to-do.
This trend transcends Durham, as Nicholas Carnes, Creed C. Black associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke, said in his new book, “The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run For Office—And What We Can Do About It.” If millionaires—just 3 percent of the population—had their own political party, they would hold a majority in all three branches of government, Carnes wrote.
“Working-class Americans—people employed in manual labor, service industry, or clerical jobs —almost never go on to hold political office in the United States,” Carnes wrote.
This prevents working-class perspectives from being heard, Carnes argued—ideas that are fundamentally different from those more well-to-do.
Eighty-one percent of state legislators that are business owners want to reduce government regulation in the private sector, while just 27 percent of workers in office agree, Carnes said in the book, citing three studies. Sixty-one percent of business owners in that office believe providing health care is not the government’s responsibility, while just seven percent of working-class workers believe the same.
“Government by the rich is often government for the rich,” Carnes said, “and government for the rich is often bad for everyone else.”
Can the job be done part-time?
Alston and Schewel say the City Council can be done part-time.
Schewel, a workaholic, said he worked 20 hours as a week as a Duke professor while on the Council—for which he worked 40 hours per week before becoming mayor. His new role as mayor can’t be done part-time, he said—he’s putting in 70 hours per week.
Alston said it’s difficult to do part-time, but not “impossible.”
“It’s a lot to carry, but if folks are committed and can create their own capacity to work, then it certainly can be done,” Alston said.
You don’t have to be independently wealthy to be on the Council, Schewel and Alston also agreed. On the City Council before the current group, five council members worked and one was retired, but not independently wealthy, Schewel said.
“Most of the people worked and were not independently wealthy,” Schewel said.
But he acknowledged that it takes significant resources to run for City Council—not necessarily financial, though. Time and energy to campaign, education on “what it takes to do this” and having a network for fundraising are all crucial.
Education level can be more important than finances—the job requires certain sorts of skills, Alston argued.
“It’s a job that requires critical thinking skills and significant high-level time management skills,” Alston said.
Six of seven council members are listed as having a college degree and four received or are in process of earning some kind of graduate degree.
Supporting a family can also be a complicating factor. Schewel said that since five council members have young children, that extra time needed to care for them has made it more difficult for many to work outside of the City Council.
“It’s really hard to raise young children, work significant hours at a job, and serve on the city council,” Schewel said. “It’s very hard to do them all.”
Time for a pay raise?
Council members tiptoed around the possibility of a pay increase. None mentioned it explicitly.
Middleton said he would only vote for an increase that would take effect after he was out of office.
“I have not heard anyone say that the idea of increasing the compensation of Durham City Council members is at the top (of) their policy agenda for the city of Durham,” Reece said. “After all, each one of us knew the salary when we filed to run for this job.”
However, all six council members the 9th Street Journal spoke with were open to raising council members’ pay.
“Everyone who sits on Council wouldn’t mind a pay raise,” Caballero said. “I don’t think any of us are going to ask for it.”
Reece is in favor of paying council members a living wage.
“I believe that the people of this city expect that members of the Durham City Council will work full-time to represent their interests,” Reece said. “Our current salary does not match up with that expectation, and that’s bad for our city because it makes it very difficult for many folks to serve.”
Schewel is open to considering making the role full-time and paid a “living wage”—something many of his colleagues agreed with.
“Having the Council job be explicitly a full-time role and paid at the rate of a full-time job would allow folks who don’t have the economic privilege I have to be entirely focused on the Council work,” Johnson said.
Alston isn’t opposed to raising council members’ salary, but also wants candidates to be running for office for the right reasons—not to line their pockets. She said she would forgo a salary increase in order to have a hired staff worker, making a living wage and working for her.
Middleton would advocate for a pay raise—but one that would only take effect once he was out of office.
“In any other area, you realize that in order to get good people, you have to compensate,” Middleton said. “All my colleagues are champions of a living wage, but we don’t make a living wage.”