Sizing up City Council

The Pew Charitable Trusts just released a comparative study of city councils in 15 U.S. cities, the focus being Philadelphia where the Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative is based. The study covers a wide range of cities: from New York, with a population of 8.3 million and 51 council members to our own Pittsburgh with 311 thousand and nine council members.

There are multiple opportunities for classification and grouping of the data. There are five cities with no at-large council seats (Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, Chicago, and Pittsburgh) and one with no district seats (Detroit); four cities have a professional manager as their chief executive/administrative officer (Phoenix, San Jose, Dallas, and San Antonio) while the remainder are mayor-council cities; only four have fewer than ten total seats (Pittsburgh, San Diego, Detroit, and Phoenix); likewise only four cities have population-per-seat of less than 50k people (Boston, DC, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh); seven cities have no term limits (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and DC); and all councils represented 1 percent or less of all general fund expenditures.

The study found that Pittsburgh is quite frugal on spending attributable to council functions: $225k per council seat, $6.52 per resident. Los Angeles, DC, and Detroit exceeded or approached $1.5 million on the first measure, and DC tallied a staggering $32.41 on the per resident measure, more than twice that of the next closest city (Detroit at $14.53).

An interesting measure to examine with the Pew data is the ratio of employees on each city council to elected council member. Pittsburgh is shown to have 33 "council employees" including the 9 elected members. That means there are 24 non-elected staff members, or 2.6 staffers per 1 council member. This was second lowest in the 15 city sample with Dallas at 1.4/1.

The average for the group is 6.7/1. Here’s where the shocking numbers come in: San Diego at 10.6/1, New York at 11.2/1, and DC again topping the list at 14.2/1. The nation’s capital city has 13 elected council members and 185 staffers. Keep in mind that U.S. House members, with districts that approach 700k people, are allowed to hire 18 staff members and up to 4 part-timers. How has the situation in DC’s city council been able to exist?