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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Sept. 27, 2023

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Vancouver panel debates value of salary review commission

By , Columbian staff writer

The Vancouver Charter Review Commission is looking to change the way that city councilors, mayors and mayors pro-tem are paid.

The commission is divided, and considering a few options — one camp is pushing to ultimately abolish Vancouver’s five-member salary review commission, the body tasked with determining how much elected city leaders should be paid. Another camp is advocating to keep the salary review commission in place, but expand its numbers and cap the raises it can potentially approve.

Any recommended change to Vancouver’s charter will need to go before the city council, which will decide whether to put the decision before the voters on a general election ballot.

The city charter is reviewed and updated every five years. It’s a slow-turning wheel — these latest recommendations are in response to a 3-year-old scandal that nearly saw massive raises handed to members of the local government.

“It almost felt like a back-door way of changing our system of government,” said Commissioner Lynn Samuels, addressing the group during a meandering debate that lasted nearly two hours Wednesday evening.

Followers of city machinations might remember the 2016 fiasco: Vancouver’s salary review commission decided that serving on the city council was a full-time job, and subsequently recommended that the mayor receive a 117 percent raise. That would have ballooned then-Mayor Tim Leavitt’s annual salary from $27,600 to $60,000. The mayor pro-tem ought to receive a 56 percent raise, the salary review commission decided. City councilors should get a 50 percent raise.

The commission made this recommendation despite the fact Vancouver government officials were already paid more generously than most other cities with a city manager structure. The Vancouver mayor’s salary was already 63 percent higher than the average of other cities across the state with a city manager model, like Bellevue, Yakima, Olympia and Pasco. City councilors enjoyed a salary 23 percent higher than the average in comparable cities.

Unsurprisingly, the massive raise proposal was not well-received by the general public.

Shortly after the salary review commission released its recommendations, a small faction of former elected officials launched a petition protesting the massive raises. They collected more than 3,000 signatures.

In turn, the city council shot down the proposal for its own raises in July 2016, sending the commission back to the drawing board. The members backtracked, and the saga concluded with modest incremental raises of 4 percent for the mayor and city councilors in 2017 and 2018.

Charter Commissioner Barry Hemphill, who chaired the 2016 salary review committee, said Wednesday that the debacle stemmed from three people on the five-person committee who hijacked the process and voted for the huge raises. But he cautioned against throwing out the salary review commission altogether, pointing out that in the end, the system worked as it should.

“The processes in place have worked. It works most of the time. It didn’t work in 2016 at all because of three people,” Hemphill pointed out. “To make it automated is, to me, a cop-out.”

The question of whether or not to abolish the salary review commission comes down to a trade-off: Is it better to hang on to local control and risk a conflict of interest? Or is it best to tie government salaries to a predictable, third-party process?

“I’m not convinced we need a salary review committee,” Samuels said. “I appreciate that it’s good to have a voice, but it didn’t seem like that voice was very meaningful.”

However, both camps agreed that city council raises need to be capped. Options floated in Wednesday’s meeting included linking the local government’s annual cost-of-living adjustments to the Consumer Price Index or the state Legislature’s yearly raises, or setting an upper limit between 3 percent and 5 percent.

The charter committee will likely vote on a course of action during its next meeting, 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 25 at City Hall.

Vancouver’s charter essentially serves as the constitution for the city. Approved by voters in 1952, it undergoes a review every five years by a committee of 15 citizen volunteers. Their recommended changes then go before the city council, which decides whether to place the recommendations on the ballot for a public vote in the next general election.

Columbian staff writer