EDITORIAL: Ask Aurora voters for a city council pay hike, but ask even more questions about governance

Council pay is only part of the issue. What’s really at stake is whether the city has grown and evolved to the point of needing to change the structure of government

Asking voters to raise the pay for Aurora’s mayor and city council members is just a short answer to much larger questions about governing the city.

Aurora lawmakers this week approved a measure that will ask voters in November to hike salaries for future city council members about 33 percent. If that sounds like a lot, it’s really not. It will be the first time in 25 years that the city has raised the pay for local lawmakers. Pay for Aurora’s mayor has changed more recently because the job has changed during the past several years.

Currently, the city’s part-time council members make $13,950 a year. The raise would increase annual pay to $18,550. Aurora’s full-time mayor makes $60,226 each year. That annual salary would rise to $80,000 a year, if voters give the green light.

City council gets more than just a monthly paycheck, however. The mayor and council members get the same health insurance benefits as other city employees, some expense money, some travel allowance and a surprisingly lucrative retirement benefit. Retirement is based on years of service, amounting to less than $100 for each year served, per month.  The average retirement check for former city council members is about $700 a month, according to an Aurora Sentinel story by reporter Quincy Snowdon. They not only get the pension for life, their surviving spouse receives it when they die.

All told, however, the long hours attending dull meetings, researching legislation and advocating for constituents works out to pretty close to minimum wage at best for most city lawmakers.

While the details and ballot language aren’t concrete yet, there’s no good reason not to ask voters for this salary increase.

But council pay is only part of the issue. What’s really at stake is whether the city has grown and evolved to the point of needing to change the structure of government. Currently, Aurora is run by the city manager, who takes policy direction from the part-time city council and full-time mayor.

By and large, it’s resulted in a well-run and efficient city, absent the political spoils and antics prevalent in cities, such as Denver. There, the elected mayor runs the city, and the full-time city council acts as ombudsmen as well as legislators. Both systems have benefits and pitfalls. A “strong” mayor and city council are generally more responsive and accountable to constituents. Anything else gets these officials elected out of their jobs. But those systems are most likely to be troubled by low-level political corruption, and Denver is a perfect example of that. Developer and builder cash is influential in all municipalities, but it’s even more politically charged in cities such as Denver.

What’s more, Aurora lawmakers are “non-partisan” officials. But in races where turnout is dismally low, with few paying attention to elections that affect them much more directly than any other, the absence of party affiliation makes for odd choices. Currently, the entire Aurora city council is composed of registered Republicans. In a city with an almost total Democratic legislative contingent, running partisan city elections would almost certainly change the equation. Whether that change would be for good or bad is debatable.

That’s the problem. Aurora hasn’t had the debate. The city should create a commission to study council and mayoral roles, salary, longevity, responsibility and partisan affiliation.

Such a study would be months in the making, but the questions need to be answered as Aurora undergoes more and stronger growing pains.

In the mean time, ask voters this fall for pay hikes to help ensure those elected to guide the city are the best candidates we can get,and that they can afford to do the job.