Press Talk: Should ‘special’ translate to dollars?

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor

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Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

Riddle me this, my fellow Vancouverites:

What possible reason would we have to pay our mayor 163 percent more than other comparable Washington cities?

I’ll wait while you ponder …

Sitting next to Portland might account for a few percentage points. It’s being a great place to live could kick it up another couple of points.

But how on earth did it get to 163 percent more?

I’m still waiting …

OK, by now you’ve figured out there is no good answer. And don’t expect our elected officials to jump in with a plausible explanation. Because there is none.

I was thinking about this after we reported Vancouver’s Salary Review Commission voted to give the mayor and city council members a 4 percent raise for 2017. And just because it could, it opted to raise the salaries another 4 percent the next year. (By the way, if you received a 4 percent raise this year and are getting another 4 percent raise next year, please raise your hand. I thought so.)

There was great rejoicing by most everyone over this because — you remember, right? — the Salary Review Commission had earlier voted to raise the mayor’s salary by 117 percent.

I’m not kidding!

But a firestorm resulted. People signed a petition to throw out the raises, and the salary commission had to go back to the drawing board to do something more reasonable.

That’s how we ended up with two 4percent raises over two years. And, yes, that sounds like a blessing when you compare it with 117 percent.

But I ask again: What is going on? Why are we so out of bounds with how we pay Vancouver elected officials even before this raise kicks in?

We’re special

Truth is, the only possible explanation is that we’re special.

And I’d agree that we are — in fact — special. Frankly, most residents would say this is the best place in the country to live. And count me in on this statement, as well.

But here’s the dirty little secret that no one talks about: Most people in most places think the very same thing about their towns.

I had a front-row seat on this “We’re special” phenomenon back in 1987. I was part of a USA Today team that visited all 50 states. Our mission? To gauge the mood of the country.

And what did we find? Well, it didn’t matter if we were in Coffeyville, Kan., or Magnolia, Miss. The people there felt — you guessed it — they were special. Theirs was the best place in the whole wide world!

Conclusion? Where we live is indeed special. But don’t be fooled into thinking we’re the only ones who feel that way.

The facts factor

But why didn’t we rely on the facts in this case?

The main facts — as noted earlier — were looking at other comparable cities and what they pay their politicians. Remember, 163 percent higher.

It would be one thing if Vancouver never, ever used comparables. But it uses them all the time. That’s exactly how Vancouver’s city manager received a huge raise not long ago.

So one could only conclude that we use them only when the results come out the way you want them to. Otherwise, we simply ignore them.

What was at play?

So what exactly was the appointed salary commission thinking when it initially approved a 117 percent pay hike? That would have brought the part-time mayor’s salary to $60,000 a year.

Well, the commissioners said, there were too many old and retired people on the city council. It needs more young people with real jobs. And more money would be the answer.

Of course, there’s absolutely no proof that more money would prompt the butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers to run for office. And there are also no facts that support that our current batch of older and retired elected types is doing a bad job.

The likely result would simply be that we’d be paying the usual suspects a higher salary.

Still, thanks

All that being said, we should not ignore the fact that the salary commission did the right thing when it threw out the 117percent pay hike.

I was particularly proud of Commissioner Magan Reed. I give her the Most Improved award. Reed was serious in trying to figure out what the right number was for an increase. She met with a number of residents. I had lunch with her, as well. She was focused and studious, and even took notes.

In the end, she was the one whom residents counted on to move to a more reasonable percentage.

So, thanks for listening, Magan Reed. Job well done.