Inside a dimly lit bar in Walnut Hills, people are showing-up on a Monday night to raise money for something most of us haven't given a second thought --- how long Cincinnati City Council members get to serve during a term.
The folks who've come on this night want to see those terms increased to four years.
"I just think we can do so much better with a four-year term," said Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, a Democrat who's the main supporter of what's come to be known as Issue 4 on the ballot in November. "We can accomplish so much more for citizens. And that's why it's important people pass Issue 4."
But opponents have targeted something that really gets voters' attention --- how much money council members make. Ask how much that is and you'll get all kinds of estimates, even from elected leaders. So as part of FOX19's commitment to follow the money for you, we dug and dug until we found city records showing exactly what they make.
The document is called "City of Cincinnati Salary Grade/Step Schedule." It actually lives online somewhere. But good luck finding it on your own. A worker in the city council clerk's office spent the better part of an afternoon helping us locate it in a format we could show you. We hit "find" and entered "council" and discovered two columns that show city council members' minimum and maximum salaries. Both are the same in this instance.
Currently, Cincinnati City Council members make $65,699.56 per year.
The next line in the document shows Mayor Mark Mallory makes $131,399.11 per year.
Councilwoman Quinlivan pointed out to FOX19 that in 2005 voters passed a measure that freezes city council's pay unless the state legislature votes to give an increase to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners AND two-thirds of the city council members vote to increase their own pay.
But back to that $66,000 that they currently make for what is a part-time job. How does that compare with other major cities in the Midwest?
FOX19 did a lot of digging here, too. We learned that members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen are also part-time and make only $37,000 a year. In Milwaukee, the city council is full-time and is paid $73,224 per year. Council members are also full-time in Cleveland and make $74,038 each year.
Remember, Cincinnati City Council members are part-time and make about $66,000. So over a two-year term, that adds-up to $132,000. If Cincinnati went to four-year terms, a council member would make $264,000 over the length of his or her term.
"I also view it as a salary increase," Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an independent opposed to Issue 4, told FOX19.
He compares it to whether a Reds baseball player would rather have a two-year or four-year contract. His argument is they'd want a four-year contract because they're guaranteed more money.
But Councilwoman Quinlivan doesn't think that argument makes sense.
"I don't…understand how they come up with that," she told us. "I mean, we get paid $60,000 a year and that doesn't change."
She went on to add this about the amount of money city council members here make: "Actually it's very much in line with what other council members make in similar-sized cities. So I don't think it's an exorbitant salary."
At Quinlivan's fundraiser, FOX19 met Tim Sullivan, founder of S.W.A.A.G.G. The Vote, which encourages young people to make their voices heard at the ballot box. We wanted to know why he thinks four-year terms are the way to go instead of the current two.
"So two years, we just feel that's not enough time to get acclimated to the system, understand your job," Sullivan said. "Within the first year maybe you can get there. But then it's time to run again."
However, Councilman Smitherman argues it's a "leadership issue," in his words, and that council members can tackle important issues during their two-year terms. He believes four-year terms would provide them with political cover to raise taxes, for instance, when their next election is still several years away.
"And I think the timing of it, when we're facing conversations about street cars, when we're facing conversations about atriums, when streets are not being repaired, I think this is the wrong time for six members of council to say, ‘Give me a raise and give me more power.' Because clearly this is going to give city council more power," Smitherman said.
More power? Or better government, as supporters of Issue 4 argue?
"Well, I do think that having a two-year term makes us more vulnerable to special interests and big donors," said Councilwoman Quinlivan. "Because there's always an election right around the corner and it's always in the back of your mind about raising money."
As for whether Issue 4 will pass on Election Day, both sides think they have voters on their side. We want to know what you think, participate in the poll here.
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