Vote ‘yes’ on Measure JJ to make public office accessible for all

Illustration of a girl running to try to catch money in the air with her full hands, as it flies into a bag being held by someone in a suit.
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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This piece reflects the opinion of the officials listed and not that of the entire ASUC. 

Currently, there are no students on the Berkeley City Council, rendering it deficient in student voices. Berkeley’s Measure JJ, however, would adjust city officials’ salaries to the cost of living in the Bay Area, which could make the route of obtaining a position in city office more feasible for students. 

In 2018, this country saw an incredible wave of young, Black, LGBTQ and female candidates run for office and win at all levels of government. But there are still institutions that impede underrepresented communities from getting a seat at the table. For this reason, Berkeley voters can and must pass Measure JJ this November to establish fair pay for our City Council members. 

When Berkeley adopted its public financing program in 2016, it became more accessible than ever for anyone in the city to campaign for office, regardless of their resources or personal wealth. However, reforms to secure fair compensation for our elected officials are necessary to ensure that candidates are actually able to serve — without fear of financial insecurity — if they are elected. 

At present, the mayor and City Council members are paid $61,304 and $38,695 per year, respectively. Those salaries were set by the city charter in 1998 and have not been adequately increased in 22 years. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the current rate of compensation puts Berkeley’s mayor below the low-income level (80% of median income) and council members below the very low-income level (50% of median income) in Alameda County, assuming each is the only member of their household. Measure JJ, however, would set the mayoral salary at $107,300 and the council member salary at $67,599.

Simply put, our elected officials are not being compensated fairly for their work. The pay structure seems to assume the job is just showing up once every two weeks to cast a vote, but in reality, the work can be upward of full time. And when the only people who run for office are those who can afford to, it seems inevitable that the people most often left out will be low-income people, young people, Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. 

Since 1998, the cost of living in the Bay Area has increased dramatically. Average rents in Berkeley now exceed $3,000 a month. Tuition for the UC system has nearly tripled, while our crushing student loan crisis has gotten worse. How many recent graduates burdened with tens of thousands in student debt can afford to take a salary of $38,695?

Ensuring that there is a system of fair pay for council members is critical to making sure that students and young people continue to have a voice in City Hall. UC Berkeley students make up one-third of the city’s population, but only one enrolled student in history has served on the Berkeley City Council: Nancy Skinner, who now represents Berkeley in the California State Senate. Southside’s current City Council member, Rigel Robinson, was elected shortly after he graduated from UC Berkeley — and while he is a full-time council member, he works a second job to make ends meet.

Student representation in local government is vital. When students are given equitable access to local government, it can lead to an increase in students appointed to city commissions, improved town-gown relations and the championing of progressive policies that tangibly benefit students. One way this has been actualized is through the creation of intern stipends to make City Hall internships more accessible to low-income students, a program spearheaded by Councilmembers Robinson and Ben Bartlett.

Skinner’s and Robinson’s stories should be the norm in a city such as ours, not a rare exception. But in general, these roles are not designed for low-income people, young BIPOC and many more who do not fall into the status quo of wealth. Until we ensure that public servants can actually afford to live off of their salaries in Berkeley, qualified and passionate community members may not consider running for office.

Berkeley must pass Measure JJ because we need candidates for public office who are young people with student debt, students of color, student-parents, first-generation students and students from low-income families who send money back home — people who are representative of their constituents and have firsthand experience with the issues, people for whom politics are personal. 

Amid the pandemic and an economic collapse that has impacted workers all across the country, it may seem like an untimely moment to address council compensation. However, if anything, these crises have demonstrated just how important it is to have community-driven elected officials. Measure JJ is not about giving current or future council members a raise — it is about replacing a broken system of compensation with a fair one. This idea has been floated for years and almost made it to the ballot in 2018, but a living wage cannot wait any longer.

Berkeley faces big issues that need to be worked on full time. And we need the most qualified, diverse council members possible to do so. To make government more accessible to students and marginalized communities, please vote “yes” on Measure JJ.

Victoria Vera is the ASUC president. Derek Imai is the ASUC external affairs vice president.