In December, 2018, Milpitas’ Mayor Rich Tran announced his run for county supervisor. Then in June, 2019, he announced his run for state assembly. Then…in July, 2019, he announced his run for a third mayoral term here in Milpitas.
The trajectory was complex. Along the way, Tran said he was switching lanes for the sake of not competing with Assemblymember Kansen Chu (who’d jumped into the county supervisor race) and then later for the sake of filling a leadership gap in Milpitas (after Vice Mayor Karina Dominguez announced her own state assembly run).
Through it all, though, visible to anyone who was watching, was the factor of salary. In other words, if we’re to honestly wonder why Tran or Dominguez wouldn’t choose to run in Milpitas first, then we have to honestly consider how much they make here…
Mayor and City Councilmember base salaries have long been shy of $15,000 per year (not accounting for car allowances and health benefits, which kick the total closer to $20k). To that small yet vocal group of citizens who wonder (you know who you are!) why The Milpitas Beat isn’t a round-the-clock political tabloid, relishing and salivating over its elected officials’ mistakes, it’s because, well, these people are just a level or two north of volunteers. Sure, like any politicians, they may be motivated by their egos, and/or by an appetite for power, but one thing’s for certain: They’re certainly not in it for that sweet 1,200 bucks a month.
The School Board actually has it worse. For them, it’s but a humble stipend of $420 a month, the only dignity of which comes from the number’s unintended reference to marijuana.
These puny numbers are a problem. In the school board’s case, they’re virtually unadjustable, as they’re tethered to state law and school enrollment numbers. The Council’s different, though. Yet in late 2014, when the council voted to give itself an across-the-board 15% pay raise, the move was framed by some as greedy. But when your greed stands to only gain you a couple extra slices of pizza, I’d go as far as to say that it’s not exactly out of control…
These people deserve more. Because our city deserves more. Because few things are more motivating than a sound, strong monetary incentive. Our city’s Mayor and Councilmembers work other jobs. And they refer to those jobs regularly, as ongoing facts of life which require their attention and demand their energy.
But imagine if they were compensated as full-timers. Imagine the level of focus and commitment. And imagine the statement that would be made not only about how seriously the city takes its officials, but about how seriously the city takes itself.
Milpitas seeks and craves robust growth, not just in terms of building developments, but in terms of standing, respect, and stature. This low-set bar of compensation for our elected officials sends the message that we don’t take them, or our city’s basic governance, very seriously at all.
Believe me, I understand that the lack to which I’m referring is more than made up for by the salaries of the city staff. In a general law city such as ours, the idea is, I gather, that the Council should be glorified volunteers — esteemed citizens who, by virtue of their low compensation, never fully shed their common citizen status. As such, their votes, their plans, their strategies and input at an official capacity can still maintain an air of “citizen” purity. To change this, we the people would have to vote to transform Milpitas into a charter city.
It’s worth considering.
The main problem is, these officials are not just underpaid, they’re also overworked. Their elected positions follow them everywhere, even when they’re not physically attending to them. At one time, I’m sure their exceedingly modest level of compensation made perfect sense. That time is over.
The city’s growing. The officials we have now are of good quality. But regardless of how good they are, their time and energy are simply limited.
And as with all things in this life, we get what we pay for.