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What you need to know about Allegheny County's ballot question on council salaries

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County residents won't just be selecting new leaders next week. They’ll also decide how their county council members will be paid.

Currently, the county’s Home Rule Charter says members “shall not receive a salary but may receive per-meeting stipends.” The stipend currently maxes out at $10,939 for members who attend 20 out of the year’s 24 regular council meetings. Members do not receive additional compensation for committee meetings, hearings, and other events,

The ballot question asks whether voters would like to amend the county charter so that council members receive the $10,939 in the form of an annual salary instead.

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Bob Macey, the council Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the change is modest, and reflects the fact that most of the council members’ work occurs outside of the body’s bimonthly meetings.

“The average time for a council meeting is an hour,” he said. “In reality, our work goes way beyond that.”

Paying for meetings only “completely ignores all council members’ attendance at and participation in committee meetings and public hearings, including our budget public hearings,” Macey added in an email. “And it makes no allowance whatsoever for the work that all of the Council members do interacting with our constituents, the local business community, and other elected officials and government agencies in the various council districts and countywide.”

Fellow Democrat Bethany Hallam has been one of the question’s most vocal critics. She argues the change would not benefit constituents but instead allow councilors “to not show up to meetings and still get paid.”

“Right now, you're allowed to miss two meetings and you still get your full pay for the year. So you get two freebies already,” Hallam said. “I can't imagine how many more [meetings] people can expect their elected representatives to miss.”

If voters approve the passage, Hallam said, “attendance at meetings would no longer be mandatory to receive your pay. … If you're not showing up for the people who entrusted you with their votes, their support, their representation, why should you get paid their tax dollars?”

Hallam also expressed concern that any amendments to the charter challenged in court could limit opportunities to propose changes in the future. If a judge were to rule that the change constitutes a change in the “form of government,” voters would be barred from changing the home rule charter again for five years. She proposed introducing multiple ballot questions at once to avoid this possibility, and questioned whether changing the form of council’s compensation should be high on the to-do list

Macey said he based his proposal on a 2016 government review commission report that recommended “restructuring” compensation for county council members.

“Compensation through per-meeting stipends is confusing, susceptible to multiple interpretations and unnecessary,” the report found. Changing the terms of payment would also bring the county in line with other municipalities that pay their legislators a “salary,” not a “stipend.”

When meetings are moved to accommodate holidays or council takes its summer break, members may go weeks without payment before they receive their stipend, he said. That can be an added burden on council members who rely on the money to pay their bills.

“All we're trying to do is bring consistency to our lives,” Macey said.

And he said voters will still have ways to hold their council members accountable: “If you're any kind of a voter and you pay attention to your council person, you know they're doing their job or you'll know that they're not doing their job. So then you have an opportunity to vote your conscience and vote them out.”

Council voted 11-3 to send the question to voters. Hallam and two staunch allies, fellow Democrats Olivia Bennett and Jack Betkowski, were the only members to vote “no.” Republican Suzanne Filiaggi was absent.

Voters will have their say Nov. 7.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at