Prairie Village council wrestles with question of whether to pay members, mayor

The Prairie Village City Council swearing in ceremony in April.
The Prairie Village City Council swearing in ceremony in April.

Prairie Village has long stood out from other northeast Johnson County cities in refraining from offering any meaningful compensation to its 12 city councilmembers and mayor. Now, members of the current council are struggling to decide if and how they should pay members of the governing body.

On a 6-5 vote Monday, the council moved to set aside a total of $63,000 in the 2017 budget as potential pay for members of the council and the mayor. But the vote was non-binding, and the contentious discussion around the idea of temporarily earmarking the funds for council pay suggests another fight is in the offing when the council takes the issue up again as part of its formal budgeting process.

The proposal taken up by the council this week would pay the mayor up to $1,225 per month — a $600 stipend, a $400 car allowance, a $200 expense allowance, and $25 for communications cost. Councilors would receive a $300 stipend per month.

At present, Prairie Village councilmembers and the mayor are given a ceremonial check for $1 each year in recognition of their service and have the option of taking a $25 per month stipend to pay for communications costs like home internet service or cell phones. That stands in stark contrast to neighboring cities, which pay their mayors and council at least a few thousand dollars each year. In Mission, for example, the mayor earns around $12,000 a year for his service, and each member of the council earns around $4,000.

Longtime councilmember Steve Noll spoke in favor of the measure, saying that while he had once been against the idea of paying members for their public service, he believed the scope of the work had evolved over the years to merit financial compensation, particularly for the mayor.

“There was a time when city staff was expected to represent our collective interests as a council,” he said. “The mayor’s job has changed dramatically. We don’t expect our staff to be doing that advocacy work. We expect our mayor to do it. And I think it is unfair to expect the person that we have chosen to do this without any compensation or any source of funds to offset all that activity.”

Noll noted that should the council approve a compensation plan, it should include an option for members not to accept the payments.

Some sitting members of the council noted that the amount of work required to keep up with their duties to the city was much greater than they had expected, and that some form of financial consideration seemed justified as a result.

“I guess I did not fully understand when I accepted the appointment [how much work it would be],” said councilmember Sheila Myers, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Laura Wassmer’s council term when Wassmer became mayor last year.

But others on the council argued strongly against the idea of the sitting council deliberating on whether to pay itself. Ward 3 Councilor Eric Mikkelson said that the idea of current councilmembers deciding whether to break the long tradition of not receiving pay for their work was “the ultimate conflict-of-interest transaction.”

“We’re talking about taking taxpayer money and putting it in our pockets,” he said. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the city is a very legitimate discussion to have — reasonable arguments have already been made on both sides. But we cannot be careful enough about the process.”

Mikkelson said the only way he could support the idea of voting to pay councilmembers and the mayor was if the payments did not take effect until after every current sitting member of the council had been up for election again. Mikkelson said the “only way to cleanse this decision” was to make sure voters had a chance to unseat any of the current sitting members before they began receiving pay.

Councilors Noll, Myers, Ashley Weaver, Serena Schermoly, Brooke Morehead and Courtney McFadden voted in favor of allocating the $63,000 in placeholder funds for governing body compensation. Councilors Mikkelson, Jori Nelson, Andrew Wang, Dan Runion and Terrence Gallagher voted against the measure. Councilor Ted Odell was absent.

The council will reconsider the idea in the coming weeks as part of its 2017 budget discussions.

The proposal is embedded below: