When they aren’t making decisions that shape Fort Worth, council members have jobs ranging from a lawyer to a daycare operator.

Soon, they could be asking voters for a raise that they say will enable those in elected office now and in the future not to have to choose between serving the public or making ends meet.

The mayor’s salary is currently $29,000 and council members’ salaries are $25,000. 

The salaries were set by voters in 2006 when they approved amending the city’s charter, which is a founding document that lists a city’s rights and privileges.

The salaries are lower than other major Texas cities. Austin’s mayor earns $97,656 and council members $83,258; Dallas’ mayor earns $80,000 and council members $60,000;  and San Antonio’s mayor earns $61,725 and council members $45,722. Then-Fort Worth City Attorney Sarah Fullenwilder outlined the salaries during a council work session last month.

Cities can amend their charters every two years. Fort Worth last did so in 2016. Then, voters chose to increase the number of council seats from eight to 10, but not to increase council members’ compensation. The proposal then was to increase the mayor’s salary to $60,000 and council members’ to $45,000.

A common argument for increasing the salary is that a liveable wage makes being on council accessible to more people. Right now, Mayor Mattie Parker said, council members have to juggle elected responsibilities that often require their full attention with other jobs, or be independently wealthy.

Parker was able to resign as CEO of the nonprofit Tarrant To & Through Partnership when elected as mayor because her husband, David, manages a lobbying firm. But some of her colleagues haven’t been so lucky, she said.

District 2 Councilman Carlos Flores has a degree in aerospace engineering and had to give up most of his consulting work when he was elected in 2017 because he no longer had time for it, he said. His family has had to make sacrifices and cut back on expenses as a result.

Meanwhile, District 3 Councilman Michael Crain is a real estate broker, District 4 Councilman Cary Moon is the president and CEO of Moon Financial, District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens is president and executive of North Texas LEAD, District 6 Councilman Jared Williams is a science educator, District 7 Councilman Leonard Firestone is the co-founder of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company, District 8 Councilman Chris Nettles is a pastor and daycare owner, and District 9 Councilwoman Elizabeth Beck is a lawyer

“I love the idea that we could have a council that continues to be incredibly diverse, from very different backgrounds and income levels, and you’re not bankrupting someone,” Parker said.

Fort Worth’s charter was first adopted in 1924 and created a council-manager form of government, Fullenwilder said. In that form of government, council members are supposed to be part-time policymakers while a city manager of their choosing oversees day-to-day operations, according to the Texas Municipal League.

“But I would argue that with Fort Worth being the 12th largest city in the U.S., these are no longer part-time positions,” Crain said. “People don’t sit down with their water department, they say, ‘Let me call my councilman to see why my bill looks this way, or why my trash wasn’t picked up today.’”  

His office receives hundreds of emails a day and he spends more than a hundred hours each week working as a council member, he said.

The Fort Worth Report reached out to every council member except for Moon, who is resigning to run for higher office. It heard back from Crain, Firestone, Williams and Flores. Bivens was not at the work session this week and declined to comment because she was sick.

Both Crain and Firestone said that if voters were to approve a raise, they would not give up their other jobs. 

“This is not about what me or anyone currently sitting in the job is able to do or not. It’s really about making it equitable,” Crain said.

Firestone no longer has a role at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company, but continues to be an entrepreneur and manages several real estate investments. He supports the raise because he thinks it “will attract a broader set of candidates to run for office and that would be beneficial to the city and our communities.”

“As always, it’s up to the voters, and I’m comfortable with that. I would only hope they would take into consideration the fact that we are no longer a small town, and we need to provide for willing public servants to best achieve the expectations of our citizens,” FIrestone wrote via email.

At a work session this week, Beck pushed for the charter election to be in November because it would not only give voters more time to become familiar with this issue, but because turnout is generally higher then. The council is expected to call a May 7 election to pass a $560 million bond.

She seemed to be overruled, though, and so did the idea of holding a charter election in May 2023 when council members will be up for re-election.

They also discussed other items in the charter, such as the length of council members’ terms and whether to stagger them. Williams floated the idea of imposing term limits.

“Every major city in Texas has term limits so I’d be supportive of like three-year terms, three terms or something between eight-10 years,” said Williams, who works as a science educator with various nonprofits and is also an adjunct professor of biology at Tarrant Community College. “I think it’s really important for a city our size to not only ensure we’re creating opportunities for representation but that we’re having new perspectives.”

But no other council member spoke in favor of term limits.

“Our voters get to decide when our term is up,” Beck said.

Flores said a lot of what was discussed this week came up when he served on the charter review task force in 2015. Then, the task force compromised, recommending lengthening council members’ terms from two to three years instead of imposing term limits. That gives council members more time to make change before campaigning, he said.

Also to be decided is how much to ask voters to raise council members’ pay. City staff presented at the work session this week several options. 

One option would be to make council members’ salary the average city employee’s base salary or 25% above that. The average civilian city employee’s salary last year was $57,161 and 25% above that is $71,451.25. 

Another option would be to remove council members’ salary from the charter and have them approve their salaries with the annual budget.

Fort Worth City Council is expected to decide by February whether to hold the charter election May 7. It is expected to continue discussing this, as well as the $560 million bond proposal, at its next work session Jan. 18.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest was the Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter from March 2021-January 2022. Follow more of her work at www.jessicapriest.me.

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