Durham’s City Council members voted 6-1 at their meeting Monday evening to increase compensation for council members and the mayor beginning January 1, 2022. 

Following two comments from members of the public, including a former council member, Jacqueline Wagstaff, opposing the move during a public hearing—and about 20 minutes of discussion among the council members themselves—the majority of the council members voted to increase pay to a livable wage for council members from $25,378 per year to $35,200 per year and from $29,875 to $41,536 for Durham’s mayor—or to the city’s livable wage rate of $16.92 an hour. 

Ward II Council member DeDreana Freeman’s was the only dissenting vote.

Pierce Freelon, Durham’s Ward III council member who originally brought the issue before the council earlier this year, said he has advocated for the pay increases because he feels “the salary issue is one of many issues that converge to prevent folks to having access to serve.”

“For me it comes down to an equity issue,” Freelon said. “I know folks who would like to serve and aren’t able to and there is not a tool in our wheelhouse to address some of the other equity issues that exist that prevent people from having access but this is one that we do have access to. This is a problem that we can solve.”

Mayor Steve Schewel and Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Jillian Johnson, Javiera Caballero, and Charlie Reece all expressed that they were conflicted about the timing of the vote in the midst of the global pandemic, but said they were convinced that raising salaries for council members is something that will increase equity and access to the council.

“In the end, it’s just really important to me that everyone gets a living wage,” Johnson said. “I feel very strongly that people deserve to be paid fairly for their labor. And we have been champions for living wages on this body for our employees and contractors and at least twice now we have asked state of North Carolina to raise the minimum wage to make sure everybody in this state is provided a living wage. It’s important for the work of this council to be compensated fairly. And it is work.” 

Schewel emphasized that the total pay increases—around $1 million over ten years—”would be a small drop in a very large bucket” in terms of Durham’s budgets overall, which will likely grow to some $6 billion over the next decade. 

“Paying council members a living wage makes a lot of sense,” Schewel said, “because it is a full-time job for almost all of us.”

Middleton echoed Freelon’s comments about having spoken to residents who have said they can’t serve because council members aren’t paid enough. 

“But part of our job is to safeguard this institution,” Middleton said. “Part of our job is to bequeath an institution that is in better shape, if we can do so, more moral, more functional than the way we found it. This office won’t be mine forever but I want it to be in better shape than I found it, if i can do that.” 

At least two council members—Schewel and Freelon—will be out of office before the pay increases go into effect, as both declined to run for reelection. Ward I and Ward II candidates Freeman and Middleton are currently running for reelection. Council member Javiera Caballero suspended her campaign for mayor but will serve in her at-large seat on the council until 2024.

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