The $10,000 mayoral and City Council salary increases approved in December by the Minneapolis City Council had been in the works for six months and were signed off on by then mayor-elect Jacob Frey 10 days before the vote.
The pay hike was also intentionally kept off the public agenda at the request of then Council President Barb Johnson, in her final days in office.
Johnson first broached the subject with city staff as early as June, floated a $5,000 increase for City Council salaries, and asked for research comparing salaries of council members in Minneapolis to those in other cities, according to e-mails obtained from the city by a Minneapolis taxpayer through a public records request.
Pam Nelms, a city Human Resources staffer, raised the subject again with the city’s chief finance officer, Mark Ruff, on Nov. 6, when she wrote that the City Council had a “small opportunity window” to raise its salaries, which they can do only once every four years.
“Council President Johnson knows that no sitting council may establish their own compensation, and that it is therefore important that the matter go to this council if there is to be any compensation change for the next council,” Nelms wrote.
Nelms produced research showing that Minneapolis council members made slightly more — $88,695 — than the average of similar-sized cities with full-time councils — $86,869. But her research also showed that “comparable city of Minneapolis management” was earning an average of $98,000, which was $10,000 more per year than council member pay.
In an e-mail dated Nov. 23, Johnson wrote to Ruff that she planned to bring forward the salary increase for the City Council on Dec. 15. In early December, she consulted with Frey about whether to raise the mayor’s salary.
Frey said he immediately saw that raising his own salary would be bad politics.
“My first reaction was no. It was simply the optics,” Frey said. “But after consulting with my transition team and those that have had the job before, as the representative for the whole city it was important to retain a differential in pay between the mayor and the council members.”
Frey told Johnson he’d back the pay increase, and Johnson wrote to Ruff on Dec. 6, explaining they’d need to find an extra $10,000 in the budget to cover the increase.
“Jacob would like to add $10,000 also — it makes our problem bigger,” Johnson wrote.
“I will work on it,” Ruff responded, and advised against cutting funding from the Fire Department to pay the $140,000 for the salary increases.
Johnson said in an interview Wednesday that she believed the distance between the mayor’s and council members’ salaries had to be maintained, and that Frey was not the driving force behind the increases.
“He wasn’t anybody that was pushing for this at all,” Johnson said.
On Dec. 12, Ruff had prepared the language of the salary increase for Johnson to present to the City Council, and Johnson told him she planned on “presenting to the people who have not heard about it on Thursday as well as Mayor Hodges.”
A day later, Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl forwarded the language of the amendment to council committee coordinator Jackie Hanson, and wrote, underlining the word “not,” that “Barb does not want the item on the printed agenda; she does want to bring it forward as an amendment to the agenda at the opening of the meeting.”
Johnson said Wednesday she kept the item off the agenda to prevent public criticism of the salary increase.
“I felt like there is never a good time to discuss salaries for elected officials. You’ll always have pushback and you’ll always have people saying you’re not worth it, and I thought it was important to be fair to my colleagues to keep them adequately compensated for the hard work they do,” she said. “So I didn’t want there to be a bunch of negative comments before we voted on this.”
Cost-of-living adjustments have given council members an average 2 percent pay increase each of the last 15 years, raising their salaries from $65,679 in 2002 to $88,695 in 2017. The $10,000 bump is the largest pay increase since at least 1997.
Former Mayor Betsy Hodges did not attend the meeting where the pay increase was approved. It was voted through unanimously.
Saying they regretted the lack of public input before the vote, some City Council members want an ordinance requiring more notice before council members raise their own pay. The council’s ways and means committee is scheduled to discuss a proposal Feb. 20.