Here we go again.

For the seventh time in the last couple of decades, Dallas voters will go to the polls, on May 5 if it stays on schedule, to vote on a referendum on City Council pay. Each of the previous questions went down to defeat by varying margins, but although each past proposal was modest in scale, the voters still turned thumbs down each time.

So here we are in 2001, with a diverse population of over one million, and our Mayor and Council members are still paid 50 dollars per meeting. This despite the fact that we expect them to understand the budget, sniff out mismanagement, protect our neighborhoods, keep our economy humming, lead perfect lives and, by the way, they’d better return our phone calls right away, too.

Does it strike anyone else that this is (a) extremely unfair, (b) pretty ridiculous and (c) downright dangerous? The proposal approved by the Council is very modest considering the huge responsibilities entailed by the more-than-full-time job of Council service. Right now, only a few select groups of people can realistically serve on the Council – either those who own their own business can afford the time away from it, those who have a generous arrangement with their employers, those who can rely on someone else for support, or (and this is where it gets scary) those whom nobody can figure out just how they make a living.

Sure, Dallas has long bought into the idea that service on the Council is a civic responsibility to be borne by those who have been so successful that they can afford to give their time and expertise back to the community, and we hope that they continue to do so. That’s great, and we appreciate those folds, but running a 21st century big city government on a principle not all that far removed from nobles oblige seems to me to be just a little outmoded.

Also, we the voters are often tempted by the notion that success in private business automatically translates into having the exact same skill set needed to do something simple like set policy and adopt ordinances for a city of a million people. Running a government, however, is very different from running a business. Businesses strive to be good corporate citizens and give back to the community, but in a market economy, their fundamental purpose is to turn a profit for the owners, first and foremost, otherwise they won’t continue to exist.

Governments, on the other hand, not only have to be well-managed and frugally run, they also have social goals to meet, developed over time based on community consensus. Council pay would broaden the base of those who could undertake this public service and represent the whole community.

Another oft-expressed concern is that paid Council members would become full-time ward-heeling professional politicians, assuming that you think that’s somehow a bad thing. Well, for starters, it’s already a full-time job and more, plus we now have a new and stronger code of ethics in place. Second, I don’t know about you, but I want my Council members hanging out at City Hall, nosing around, answering calls and e-mails, bugging the staff and generally trying to look out for my neighbors and me. My current Council member is very good at that, and I would certainly want the next one to do the same kind of job.

So if Council pay means that my neighbors and I can send someone pretty much like us to City Hall who can afford to spend 40 to 60 hours per week looking out for our district as well as the city as a whole, I’m all for it – in fact, I tend to think that’s what representative government is all about.

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