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The proposed City Council pay raise 

In the end, we almost always get what we pay for

Would you apply for a full-time job that often requires you to work six or even seven days a week and hasn't gotten a pay raise in 24 years — and probably won't get one for at least another four?

  Welcome to the New Orleans City Council.

  In terms of duties and workload, councilmembers serve as land-use regulators, ombudsmen, budget writers, fiduciaries for a half-billion-dollar annual budget, contract reviewers, legislators and more. They provide a vital check on the vast powers accorded to the mayor, and they often are the flak-catchers of first resort when things don't go right.

  To top it all off, being a councilmember is a thankless job. As political steppingstones go, a council seat usually takes you nowhere.

  All that for $42,500 a year, plus a city car and driver — and all the hell you can stand.

  Those are just some of the reasons why a group of business and civic leaders recently suggested increasing council salaries starting next May — after voters have had the opportunity to elect new councilmembers. "The current salary is not commensurate with the workload, the authority you have or with the responsibility of your roles," said Greg Rusovich of the Business Council of New Orleans.

  In response, District A Councilmember Shelley Midura, who is not seeking re-election, introduced an ordinance boosting council pay to around $83,000 a year. The ordinance also raises the mayor's pay from just over $131,000 to $140,000 a year, with 2.5 percent annual raises built in.

  The idea of raises garnered support from two other councilmembers: District C Councilman James Carter, who is rumored not to be seeking re-election; and District B Councilwoman Stacy Head, who probably will face a tough re-election fight. Head reportedly favors a raise but not necessarily one as large as that contemplated in Midura's ordinance.

  Meanwhile, three councilmembers have come out against the pay hike: District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, District E Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, and At-Large Council member Jackie Clarkson. Hedge-Morrell and Clarkson are seeking re-election; Willard-Lewis is term limited in her district but will seek an at-large council seat — against Clarkson and Council President Arnie Fielkow.

  That's where things get dicey. Fielkow is the only councilmember who hasn't yet weighed in. If he votes for the raise, it will pass but it won't have a veto-proof majority — and there's no telling what Mayor Ray Nagin might do, even if he promises to sign it. Besides, both Willard-Lewis and Clarkson would make it a campaign issue against him. If he opposes the raise, it's dead in the water.

  There's another danger in voting for the raise: It almost certainly would broaden and improve the field of candidates in the Feb. 6 primary, which means incumbents seeking re-election would face tougher opposition.

  No doubt critics of the idea will conjure the 2008 controversy over legislative pay raises, which lawmakers tried to give themselves immediately. This raise is different in that it would not take effect until after voters have chosen the next City Council. That's a key distinction, because it takes personalities out of the equation and focuses the discussion where it should be: on the job, not on those who happen to hold it right now.

  Still, I suspect the pressure will be too much for Fielkow. The safe play for him is to oppose the raise and not give his two biggest opponents an issue with which to beat him up. That's too bad, because killing the raise lowers expectations. In the end, we almost always get what we pay for

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