Missoula City Council holds a public hearing June 6 on an ordinance allowing Council members to voluntarily reduce their salaries. Ward 6’s Clayton Floyd, who introduced the idea, says it would allow public servants to maintain benefits such as Social Security disability and retirement payments or housing subsidies—which are income-dependent—if Council’s whopping $11,123 annual salary rendered them ineligible. Though the idea was spawned by the predicament of one individual—Jon Wilkins, a disabled candidate in Ward 4—the change would impact a larger segment of society, Floyd says, and without the voluntary reduction option, “you’re going to disqualify a whole group of people who might run.”
Ward 3’s Stacy Rye has raised concerns, seconded by the Montana Advocacy Program, a civil rights organization devoted to disability issues, and the Social Security Administration. But it’s difficult to see to the bottom of waters muddied both by election year politics and the uncertainties of the ordinance’s legal implications. Wilkins, who will run regardless of whether the ordinance passes, says Rye is against the idea because she doesn’t want him on Council; Rye insists she’s opposed purely because it’s bad public policy. Meanwhile, no one’s sure how the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and Social Security might factor into the fray.
Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, the Montana Advocacy Program’s executive director, says her group will argue against the ordinance. “People with disabilities need to be paid the same amount of money for the same amount of work,” she says. Plus, she thinks the provision would enable aldermen to cheat other government agencies, specifically Social Security, and she says “We will be the first organization to turn anybody in who is defrauding the government.”
Toralf Lie, the Social Security Administration’s district manager in Missoula, hasn’t seen the ordinance, but says those receiving disability can’t earn more than $830 per month and still qualify. If the agency determines people are deliberately holding down their earnings, they could be disqualified, he says. But there are too many ifs, ands or buts to come to any solid conclusion.
At root, it seems, is the fact that Council’s paltry wages force prospective councilors to choose between their existing benefits and the rewards of public office. And that discussion isn’t on the docket, at least this week.