Oh, the memories. Right? You remember? It was 2016. A rogue salary review commission decided it was time the mayor and the city council started making some real money. So they voted a 117 percent pay hike for the mayor and huge bumps for city councilors. Our mayor and city council were already making a ton more than other cities our size, but so what.
Now remember, this nutcase commission wasn’t making a recommendation that the city council could reject. So only a complicated petition drive, the threat of the outrageous proposal going to the voters, and goat bones burned with incense could prevent it from happening. Fortunately all three came together. City residents celebrated and ate goat tacos for a week.
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But a few wise men and women realized that bullet dodging and goat-bone burning is not a good way to run a government. So with an upcoming charter review committee on the horizon, they saw hope. That’s because this committee can recommend changes regarding the way the city is governed. Surely, they could make all of this salary stuff right.
And several months later, they were back with their proposals. It should be noted here the charter review committee began with this salary mess as its top priority, but it soon shifted gears to concentrate on having councilors elected by districts, not citywide, as they are now. (I’ll leave that pasticcio for another day.) But they did come up with suggestions to try to fix the salary issue. Like increasing the size of the salary review commission and capping raises.
But guess what? None of them are ideal. Oh, they would clearly help. And they would make things better. Still, they missed the easiest solution of all. And I’ll get to that soon. I promise. Just keep reading.
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Why do we have a salary review commission? Some city councilors will tell you it’s for altruistic reasons. They don’t want to give themselves raises. They want to remain neutral. Above the fray. Well if you believe that, I’ve got some ocean front property in Yacolt to sell you.
It’s for plausible deniability. This is important because — above all — the end game will always be getting re-elected. So when a once-removed salary review commission gives them a raise, if the voters complain, city councilors can just say, “Hey, I hear ya, but it wasn’t me, it was those guys over there!”
So if a salary review commission isn’t the answer, what is? Well, the simplest way to keep city councilor salaries in line is to — dramatic pause required here — let them give themselves a raise. That might sound counter-intuitive, but in this case it would work. We’re letting them off the hook when we don’t force them to decide. If they set their own salaries, they know small raises or even no raises would happen. Why? Self preservation.
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I spoke to Esther Schrader, a member of the charter review committee, about all of this a few days ago. She’s sort of, kind of, a spokeswoman for it. The committee had no chairperson. (Don’t ask.)
Schrader said the idea of disbanding the salary review commission and kicking the raises back to the city council was discussed. And some members were in favor of it. But ultimately it was decided to retain the commission and build in some safeguards. And, again, those safeguards will help. And you’ll see them on an upcoming ballot.
Besides, Schrader added, “I don’t think the city council would want it back.”
It was at this point when I laughed. A lot. “No kidding!” I bellowed. (I’m friends with Schrader — she owns a Don’t Do Stupid Stuff mug — so I’m allowed to have some fun with her.)
But simply because they wouldn’t want to do it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. There is no better safeguard for keeping salaries in check than forcing a politician to put his or her political neck on the line.
Oh well, another opportunity missed. In the end, Vancouver will have to make due with the proposals in hand. But keep the goat bones handy, just in case.