WATSONVILLE—Near the tail end of a largely uneventful first read-through of the proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year on June 14, Watsonville City Council members gave themselves a nominal pay increase that sparked a discussion about how their compensation limits who runs for office.
The city council will now be paid $638.14 per month, up from their previous salary of $607.75—included in their salary is a $10 per month contribution by the city for a life insurance benefit. Mayor Ari Parker will receive an additional $100 per month, per the city charter.
The increase was the second to last item on a packed agenda and drew little public discussion. But the council nevertheless opined on the roughly $7,600 annual salary they receive, and how they believed it restricted who serves on the council.
Councilman Jimmy Dutra said that it prevents young people from getting involved in politics and turns the seats into “a position for people who are retired or for people who can financially stand on other jobs”—only two of the seven current council members are younger than 40.
“It really prevents a certain demographic of people from participating,” Dutra said. “I don’t even think we’re close to paying the council members enough so that we can attract more people to participate. I want more people participating in this process and, hopefully, we can get there one day where people can say, ‘OK, I can afford to do this, and I can take care of my family.’”
Dutra’s candor made Parker share a story of when she announced to her friends that she was running for office.
“Everyone asked me, ‘You’re retiring from teaching?’ And I said, ‘Wow, wait a second. Not happening. That’s the job I will get food from,’” Parker said.
Watsonville, like many cities across the state, is limited in the amount it can pay its city council by its city charter. That all-encompassing document states that the council’s salary is determined by Section 36516(a) of the California Government Code, which restricts an elected leader’s salary by their respective city’s population. In Watsonville’s case, the city of roughly 55,000 residents can pay its city council up to $500 per month, along with an annual 5% increase.
Councilman Eduardo Montesino said that the city council should revisit the charter to alter the salary limits as a way to entice more people to run for office.
“We need to be able to attract community members because—I’m going to repeat myself again—it’s a travesty that nobody ran in my district,” said Montesino, referring to the 2020 election in which he ran unopposed for the 1st District seat. “There should always be people willing to participate in putting themselves out there for the community.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Garcia was the lone dissenting vote against the increase. Garcia, who has regularly voted against city council salary increases, said that during her 20 years on the Cabrillo College Governing Board she did not receive a “penny” for her service.
“I’m used to public service without any funding,” she said.