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Career Profile: City Council Member

So now that we've delved into the many layers of government from federal to local, let's dig ourselves back out. We're going to look at different offices you can run for from the local level and onwards, starting with the City Council!

Most of my knowledge about City Council comes from watching Parks & Recreation. Remember when Leslie Knope ran and got to vote for herself for the first time? That was a nice moment:

Leslie Knope Parks & Recreation

The City Council varies in size depending on the city. Councils can range from 5 to 51 members, but the national average is 6. Some councils are called something else, like a Town Council or Board of Aldermen. A few City Councils in America are bicameral, like those of Seattle and Philadelphia. I encourage you to look up your city or town's government and find out what their legislative body is called, how many members it has, and other pertinent information. Who knows? Maybe you'll find that you want to attend a Council meeting, or even run for Council Member in the future.

The City Council works like the Legislative Branch. Council members regularly meet and discuss the needs of their city and propose bills, hold votes and pass laws. The Council usually works with the Mayor to get things done. Also, one member of the Council is appointed Mayor Pro Tempore (or Vice Mayor) and this is sometimes decided within the Council or by local election. It's important to note that positions in local government are generally considered non-partisan. While an individual member might be right or left-leaning, generally speaking, these opinions don't factor in as much because a Council Member's main job is to help manage a city. If you manage an Olive Garden, your political affiliation probably doesn't affect the way you manage. Your main concern is making sure your employees are doing their job, that the restaurant is in clean condition and that your customers are happy. The same principles apply to city government.

Tampa City Council

(Image Credit: City of Tampa)

So what does a typical day look like for a City Council Member? Depending on the size of the town, they have to attend regular meetings, both closed and open to the public, on a weekly or monthly basis. They also have to go out and interact with their constituents, whether it's attending social events, fundraisers or meeting with citizens one-on-one. City Councils often break down responsibilities by forming committees or task forces on specific issues like public health or housing. This allows Council Members to become experts in specific areas and helps the Council manage their time more efficiently.

The largest, most important task a City Council must tackle is reviewing and approving the annual budget. Duties can range in scope from Council to Council but in general they oversee effectiveness of programs as well as the performance of their employees and committees. They can pass ordinances and resolutions, establish tax rates, minimum wage, regulate zoning laws, licenses and public health. They can also listen to constituents' concerns and represent their community to other levels of government like the county and state.

So now that we know what City Councilors do, how much money do they make? An unknown wonderful person made the map below of Dallas and its surrounding towns and cities to compare how much council members made. If you toggle through the different starred cities below, you can look at how much members make as well as how their salaries are determined. You'll see that some towns only pay their members per meeting, some pay per month and some don't pay AT ALL. Can you imagine being a volunteer City Council Member?

That's some interesting food for thought because if you happen to live in a town where you make the equivalent of a part-time salary or less--who is able to run for those positions? It should be noted that the time commitment is usually less the smaller the town, so it's possible to hold a full-time job and be in the City Council. However, wouldn't our cities and towns be better off if our Council Members could govern full time? Why spend all that time and energy trying to better your town if you are not paid adequately for your services? Conditions like these make it hard for people of a lower income bracket to run for City Council. Most City Council seats are filled by seniors, married people and white men, largely because they can devote the time and the financial resources. If we want better representation in government, how can we get minorities or individuals who struggle financially to run for City Council? This is something I want to investigate as we go further along in this journey.

Would you be willing to run for City Council? How about attend a Council meeting? Tell us what your City Council looks like so we can compare and contrast!