As someone who has worked for elected officials at every level of government, I’ll put it plainly: Charlotte’s mayor and City Council are understaffed.
The past two years have shown us that Charlotte is a major city facing major challenges. The job of representing more than 100,000 people in a district – or 840,000 in the case of the mayor and at-large members – is too complex and too important to fall on one part-time pair of shoulders.
Staff manage constituent services and correspondence, provide different perspectives and points of view, have the time to research and become experts on issues facing elected officials, and help a human being make the best, most informed decisions possible given the available information.
Parker Cains, a Republican who ran for City Council this year, noted that hiring council aides could also increase the talent pool of people who understand Charlotte and city government.
A good example of a council member’s workload is the zoning process, which accounts for a fourth of all city business.
Charlotte had over 170 rezoning cases this year. The monthly zoning case book is the size of a large college textbook, and doesn’t include the hundreds of emails and messages from constituents.
That’s a lot to respond to and digest on top of three other council meetings every month, committee meetings, countless community forums and events, and an election every other year.
Any time the council has to delay a decision, it costs taxpayers money in terms of staff time and resources. It’s not uncommon for rezoning petitions to get deferred when the council doesn’t have adequate time to address all of the issues with a petition, which costs the city staff time and increases costs to developers, who eventually pass the costs on to tenants.
While council can ask questions of department staff, no member of council has his or her own staff member working on these issues. Council staff are shared, and the mayor has a small staff. While these staffers are highly qualified and do great work for the city, Charlotte’s combined City Council and mayoral staff is about half the size of a typical congressional office.
Charlotte’s population, of course, is larger than that of a congressional district (over 710,000 on average).
A 2014 study conducted by the City of Seattle (population: 704,352) found that council members have 1-3 aides each in Austin, Boston, Denver, Jacksonville, Oakland and San Francisco, and members of Seattle’s council have 3-4 staff members.
In all of these cities, district council members represent fewer citizens than district or at-large members of the Charlotte City Council.
It’s clear that Charlotte is behind its peer cities here, but that doesn’t mean this is a popular issue to champion. Council salaries and staff are paid out of property taxes, and that’s revenue the city needs to pave roads, deliver essential services and tackle affordable housing.
However, when politicians are understaffed, they tend to lean on political consultants, lobbyists and donors. Intentional or not, that takes away influence from citizens.
For a city of our size and importance, the modest salaries for professional staff are a small price to pay for better governance.
Sam Spencer is a member of the planning commission and a political consultant who has managed local campaigns for Congress, mayor and City Council.