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News / Clark County News

Press Talk: The city salary mess continues

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor
Published: April 30, 2016, 6:10am

(This is part one of a two-part column that examines the pay increases being given to Vancouver’s mayor and city councilors. The second part will run Sunday.)

I suspect they had no idea they would end up in the middle of this Shinola storm.

But there they were, scrambling around, looking for cover and the nearest exit.

And who knows, maybe they found a way out of this mess. I’ll get to that in the second part of this column, which will run Sunday.

Now, by “they,” I mean the Vancouver city councilors. And the storm they’re trying to weather? Why, it’s the Salary Review Commission.

For those of you not paying attention — likely because you’ve been counting your nickels and dimes trying to make ends meet — something very strange just happened. The Salary Review Commission gave the part-time mayor a 117 percent pay increase. City councilors also got a huge bump.

The raise has so outraged some members of our community, a petition drive is underway to get the raise question on the ballot to try and throw it out.

Who selects these guys?

And yes, this salary commission is appointed by the mayor. And the city council then approves it. That’s straight from the charter. 

I noted this mayor appointment thing in earlier columns, and Mayor Tim Leavitt is now objecting. Look, the city charter is clear on this issue. The mayor does — in fact — appoint these commissioners. Then the city council approves those appointments. Those are simply the facts. I’ll assume the mayor and city council are following the charter.

But the mayor now is saying he has virtually nothing to do with these salary commission people. Barely knows them, he will tell you. And his objection centers on the idea that when you connect this huge raise he’s getting with his appointment of them, that’s unfairly unbecoming.

Is there a connection? Now, I can’t get into the mayor’s head, nor can I get into the salary commissioners’ heads, but let’s give him and the city council some credit here. I don’t believe for a second that these elected officials stacked the deck with pro big-raise commissioners. Regardless, our elected officials cannot run and cannot hide from the fact that these salary commissioners did not magically appear. They were put there by the mayor and city council.

Now, the mayor and city council want to create some breathing distance — some plausible deniability — between them and this salary commission. And I’m simply opposed to letting our elected officials off the hook with this big raise. That’s simply not fair to residents, because residents can’t vote out these salary commissioners. The salary commission should be abolished and the raises should be given out by the city councilors themselves. That way, if residents don’t like the raises, they can voice that view at the ballot box. Until then, I choose to try to hold the mayor and city council accountable for the actions of the salary commission they appointed.  

Headaches and strange bedfellows

Councilor Alishia Topper put it best at the Monday council meeting, which I attended. She said this raise issue is splitting residents apart and distracting everyone from concentrating on more important issues, such as providing housing for low-income residents.

It’s also creating a strange — but delicious — phenomenon. Longtime enemies are ending up on the same side of this issue.

Right-wing local activist Larry Patella and former Mayor Royce Pollard agree on this raise issue, even though they are archenemies.

“Il nemico del mio nemico è mio amico.”

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On Friday, Patella sent an email blast out to his followers telling them where they can sign the petition and said he’s hoping to pick up some petitions to get others to sign them. Oh, my! 

In addition, it’s creating a rift in the local liberal community. Here’s why:

Most liberals believe we should do as much as we can to support those who work in government. Public employees are good people, work hard and are bright.

But the split occurs because some liberals don’t lump elected officials in with other government employees. Huge raises should not be in the equation for elected officials.

Whatever side of this issue you fall on, most everyone agrees it is a huge mess.

On Sunday, I’ll conclude this column by writing about:

• The mayor’s role in this, and if that’s helping or hurting.

• Why interpreting the law on this salary review commission hasn’t been easy.

• What the next steps are, and one step that might surprise you a little.

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Columbian Editor