Raleigh council members want staff assistants

City manager questions the cost of adding staff assistants

mgarfield@newsobserver.comAugust 6, 2012 

— Serving on the Raleigh City Council is a part-time role. But council members say the increasing demands of the job require full-time assistance.

The City Council voted Monday to explore adding more staffers to the council office to help with tasks such as responding to mail, researching policy and setting up meetings with constituents. Under one scenario, each councilor would get an assistant.

The issue surfaced during a council planning retreat to discuss major issues facing Raleigh. Other topics included transportation, economic development and communication in the digital age.

The council’s support staff has remained unchanged for the past decade. In that time, Raleigh has grown from 276,000 to more than 400,000 residents and seen its annual budget nearly double, to $681 million.

With more people, demands keep piling up, council members say.

For Thomas Crowder, it was staying up until 2 a.m. to do policy research for an upcoming meeting.

For Randy Stagner, it was answering a batch of constituent emails while on vacation in Key West.

“Even if you were to be full-time, you still need a staff in order to do this job properly,” said Stagner, serving his first term in North Raleigh’s District A seat. “The staff that we have now is insufficient.”

The possibility of additional staff could draw criticism at a time of intense scrutiny of government spending. Reacting to the discussion, City Manager Russell Allen noted that Raleigh has not filled administrative jobs amid the recession.

“The takeaway for the public will be that you’re considering adding staff to your office when, across the board, we’ve been cutting,” Allen said.

But council members said a serious look is warranted.

“The general public understands that we’re a larger city now,” said Councilman John Odom. “We need to have the conversation.”

Currently, three assistants work in the council office on the second floor of City Hall. One works for the mayor and mayor pro tem only, while the other two share responsibility for six council members.

The changes discussed Monday might not result in additional hires, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. Current city employees could be reshuffled or an internship program could be created to bring in college students to help with tasks.

“Clearly we need more staff,” McFarlane said. “I want an analysis of what the council needs, and (options for) how that can be best addressed.”

Crowder recalled working late into the night while researching policies to deal with problem landlords. The work led to the passage of a new monitoring system for rental property owners.

“One of the big things that would help all of us is getting that initial research,” Crowder said. “That was just hundreds of hours, sitting up at 2 in the morning, trying to get all this background. And turning around having to go to your day job.”

Other changes in the works

The talks about additional staff come less than a year after the departure of Mayor Charles Meeker, known for his unassuming but efficient style and habits that included answering his own phone.

Contacted at his law office Monday, Meeker said the needs of every council are different, but added, “the system was working well when I was there.”

“Public service is about being accessible to the public and trying to move things forward without tying up too many people’s time,” he said. “I didn’t think about it much. That’s just the way I operated.”

Other changes are occurring. This year, council members will receive $5,000 salary increases and, for the first time, have access to health and dental insurance through the city. The pay raises will be spread over five years.

Currently, the mayor is paid $15,000 annually while council members each earn $10,000. The council also will hold a public hearing this fall on a possible switch from two- to four-year terms.

Chip Roth, the Teamsters representative for Raleigh police officers, said he doesn’t have a problem with the council seeking additional help with its duties.

“If they feel like they need more support in order to more responsive, generally speaking, that sounds like a wise move,” Roth said. “Police officers understand the level of demands and complexity of demands that are placed on the city.”

Garfield: 919-836-4952

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