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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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Press Talk: Where do we go from here?

By , Columbian Editor

was listening to the Michael Damian 1989 classic “Where Do We Go From Here?” and I simply couldn’t get this absolutely crazy mayor raise thing out of my head.

A few courageous citizens also couldn’t get it out of their heads, so they organized a ballot petition drive to try and get the mayor’s 117 percent pay increase put before voters.

They succeeded.

You sometimes wonder, when will political types and the people they appoint quit doing stupid stuff? If I were a betting man, I’d say not anytime soon.

So what’s going on? Well, our very own rogue Vancouver Salary Review Commission stepped way out of bounds. It decided to essentially change the city’s form of government by giving the mayor a sweet 117 percent raise, the mayor pro tem a 57 percent raise and city councilors a 50 percent raise. Hey, everyone? Raise your hand if you got a bump like that. I thought so.

By the way, I use the word “rogue” because this salary review commission has no oversight. Zero. In theory, they could give the mayor a $1 million raise and there isn’t one dang thing you or I or even the city council could do about it. Nada. And I say the salary commission’s huge raise changed the city’s form of government because it did. Not in a technical sense, but in a real sense.

No longer would the mayor’s role be seen as a public service. If his 117 percent raise to $60,000 stands, it would turn into a job. A “Hey, I’m in it for the bucks” opportunity.

• • •

It’s funny how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.

Every few years, a bunch of citizens gets together to look at the city’s charter. The charter essentially controls what, and how, the city does. So several years ago, these citizens decided a salary review commission should be set up to give the mayor and councilors raises. But these charter folks forgot to put any kind of controls on the salary commission. In other words, it could do whatever the heck it wants.

The commission likely was created because those citizens assumed (very bad to assume) that it would behave. And it has, for years. Until this year.

Also, there was this weird dynamic going on when salary commissioners were picked. Technically, the city council vetted these folks. No, really, they did. But as Councilor Jack Burkman pointed out at an earlier council meeting, he purposely steered clear of asking them anything about their thoughts on raises.

How’s that working for you now, councilor?

In retrospect, these commissioners should have been grilled about their thoughts on doing something stupid like huge raises. That could have eliminated a few “I know what’s best for Vancouver” salary commissioners from ever being appointed by the mayor.

That’s right, Mayor Tim Leavitt did appoint these guys. Now he proudly admits his appointment was just a rubber stamp. He barely knows who these people are. I find this to be deliciously ironic. Here’s a guy who is fighting for this big raise because, after all, this mayor gig is super important. Yet he really pays little attention to who gets on these appointed commissions. Just sayin’. Truth is, the mayor thing is pretty much cutting ribbons, going to dinners and lunches, and talking at schools.

The next move

Now that the petition has been certified, the city council has two options: Assign it to the ballot so Vancouver residents can vote on it, or throw the raises out. Look for the majority of city councilors to throw the raises out. But don’t look for Leavitt to be in favor of it. And, honestly, that surprises me. For a guy who you might think has his pulse on the community to not have figured out this big raise thing will get crushed if it reaches the ballot is beyond me. I figure it’s 65-35 against the raise.

But if Leavitt has his way, it goes to the ballot.

“I’ll support the voters’ weighing in,” he told me.

Now, here’s the weird thing. Even though most folks who oppose the huge raise want the city council to throw it out, I’m actually leaning in favor of agreeing with Leavitt on letting it go to the ballot. Why? Because the salary commission frightens me. If the council throws the raise out, a new raise structure has to be put in place. And guess who gets reconvened to do just that? The salary commission.

And with no oversight, who knows what they will do. In theory, they could increase the raise even more! One guy who scares me is Salary Commissioner Thomas Hackett. He was one of the commissioners strongly in favor of this raise. To his credit, he posted a comment on an earlier column I wrote on this topic. His advice to Vancouver residents? They had better get in touch with him and the other commissioners and convince them why this huge raise is inappropriate.

“Otherwise, when the same commissioners are presented with the same question on what to set the salaries of the mayor and city council at again, I expect the commissioners would make the same decision,” Hackett said.

What the …

So you can see why I lean in favor of Hackett’s hearing loud and clear from the voters. There already were plenty of folks who testified against these huge raises. It’s difficult to imagine who else Hackett and the other two commissioners need to hear from.

• • •

So I ask again, where do we go from here? Hopefully not into the stupid zone … again.

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