Following public testimony by two former mayors and a tense discussion, the city of Vancouver’s salary review commission failed to make a decision Wednesday about how much of a pay raise the mayor and city council should receive for the next two years.
The five-member commission, appointed by the mayor, is tasked with setting the council and mayor’s 2017-2018 salaries by May 1. Wednesday was the fifth time the commission has met this year, and commissioners had said they’d planned to take action Wednesday. But they ended up rejecting both a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment and a proposal for a nearly 40 percent pay increase for the council and a 63 percent pay increase for the mayor.
The two commissioners who seem to be leaning toward an even larger pay increase, Thomas Hackett and MarCine Miles, said they weren’t ready to make a motion.
The commission will meet next at 10 a.m. April 15 at Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St.
Earlier this month, Mayor Tim Leavitt told The Columbian that considering how much time he invests in his mayoral duties, he thought the job warranted a $100,000-a-year salary.
Vancouver has a city manager form of government. City Manager Eric Holmes earns $210,000 a year to run the city, whereas the mayor and city council are elected to set policy, sit on various boards and represent the city at public events and ceremonies. The mayor leads the council meetings and serves as the city’s figurehead. The council hires the city manager. The city manager hires and oversees the city employees, who follow the policies the council sets.
In cities with “strong mayors” rather than city managers, the mayor handles administrative duties and sometimes is paid a salary equivalent to that of a city manager.
On Wednesday, former Vancouver mayors Bruce Hagensen and Royce Pollard and former councilor and mayor pro tem Larry Smith all urged the commission not to drastically raise salaries. Hagensen said if the mayor’s job was full time, then the city’s form of government would have to be changed.
“You can’t have two bosses running around the second floor of city hall,” he said.
The three former elected officials said if the mayor’s public duties were too time consuming, he should delegate some of them to the mayor pro tem or other councilors.
Pollard, urging the commission not to make a “terrible mistake,” said there was no guarantee a $100,000 salary would recruit a better mayor than what Vancouver has had in the past. He pointed out that in addition to their regular pay, the mayor and councilors receive health, dental and Social Security benefits and a cellphone allowance.
Smith said he felt a cost-of-living adjustment was appropriate for the council, with a larger pay bump for the mayor pro tem.
“I think there’s a danger when you mix money and power,” Smith said.
To make the job attractive financially would draw the wrong type of person to run for public office, he warned.
Two of the eight people who testified at the public hearing, however, said the council and mayor were woefully underpaid. That means the job is going to attract only independently wealthy people or retirees, said Vancouver resident Heidi Owens. Higher pay would encourage the brightest, most qualified, systemic thinkers to participate in government, she said. (Including the mayor, four of the seven councilors are professionals under age 50.)
Chairman Barry Hemphill asked Owens if she felt the pay had helped attract quality candidates to the Clark County council. Until this year, councilors made about $102,000. Under Clark County’s new charter, county councilors make $53,000 a year while the council’s chair makes $63,600. Councilors elected before November get to earn their original annual salaries of $102,000 through the end of this year.
“That’s a unique situation,” Owens said.
Some people on the five-member board of county councilors couldn’t do the job without the salary, she said.
Hemphill made a motion to increase all council salaries by 2 percent, which would have amounted to an additional $36 a month for councilors, $40 for the mayor pro tem and $46 for the mayor. The current monthly salaries are $1,800 for the council ($21,600 a year), $2,000 for the mayor pro tem ($24,000 a year) and $2,300 for the mayor ($27,600 a year).
Hemphill’s motion, supported only by Commissioner Stan Girt, failed 3-2. Commissioner Magan Reed’s amendment to the motion died for lack of a second. She had proposed hiking the annual salaries to $30,000 for the council, $35,000 for the mayor pro tem and $45,000 for the mayor.
Pay above average
In other comparable Washington cities with a city manager form of government that the salary commission reviewed this year — Bellevue, Yakima, Spokane Valley, Kirkland, Kennewick, Lakewood, Olympia, Pasco, Richland and Shoreline — the average monthly salary is $1,413 for mayors and $1,467 for councilors. Vancouver’s pay is 163 percent above average for mayors and 123 percent above average for councilors, the salary commission learned.
Reed said she wasn’t concerned with what other cities paid their elected officials. Her goal was to eliminate financial barriers to people serving on the council, she said.
When the commissioners kept debating, Hemphill urged them to make a motion. Nobody was ready to act. Hackett said he was feeling hostility from Hemphill.
“I’m not hostile. I’m trying to move the process forward,” Hemphill said.