Freeholders discuss how to reduce commissioner salaries

They will vote on whether to OK charter on May 27

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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As the Clark County Board of Freeholders winds down its months-long reimagining of county government by revising the county charter, its members have put to bed one of the more debated issues in the document.

The freeholders' 15-member board Tuesday decided on a timeline for reducing pay for county board members. They voted to reduce the commissioners' pay to $53,000 a year for all five seats by 2017.

The new salary will become part of a larger series of changes to the proposed charter, which aims to revamp the way power in the county is divided. Those changes include adding a more powerful county executive — a county manager — and expanding the board from three members to five, changing their titles to councilors in the process.

The two new members would take office in 2016 and immediately receive a salary of $53,000 a year, according to Tuesday's decision, which requires voter approval. What that means is for the first year of the county council's five-member composition, two of its members would make a little less than half of the roughly $102,000 the other members would make.

How to stagger the drop in pay was at the heart of Tuesday's discussion. Not all freeholders saw eye to eye on how the transition should play out.

Marc Boldt, a member of the freeholder board and a former county commissioner, said he was opposed to the temporary lack of equity in pay.

"Everybody should make the same," he said. "Otherwise, you will have such dysfunction on the board, at least for a year."

Freeholder Randy Mueller took a different view. He supported an option to first lower the salary for the District 3 seat in 2015 — ripping the Band-Aid off, he said — before staggering the decreases for the other seats in 2016 and 2017.

Nan Henriksen, chairwoman of the freeholders, said the debate was expected and there was no way the decision-making process wouldn't get a little "messy." No matter which option was chosen, there would be concerns about equity, she said.

The decision also bears some legal risk, said Chris Horne, the county's chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney. While charter revisions provide the ability to change salaries, just how the county implements the change is a legal gray area.

Freeholder Joseph Zarelli said the board shouldn't be concerned about someone disputing the legality of how the salaries are implemented.

"At the end of the day," Zarelli said, "any elected official who argues his or her salary probably isn't running for re-election anyway."

The freeholders next meet on May 27. That will be their last meeting, and they will vote on whether to approve the proposed charter. If approved, it will go to voters in November.