City Council maneuvers for increase in salaries

Oak Harbor council members are trying to figure out how to raise their salaries without raising any eyebrows in the community.

At a workshop April 19, City Attorney Phil Bleyhl discussed several options council members have for increasing their salaries, including the possibility of putting together an independent salary commission with the power to hike or cut salaries.

It’s been more than five years since the council members have had a raise. In 1997, the council approved a salary hike that went into effect in 1999. The current salary is $425 a month, plus council members have the option of health insurance.

Council Richard Davis, who’s not running for re-election, said he’s been urging council members to increase salaries for at least two years, but “nobody wants to talk about it.”

Obviously, it’s a politically touchy subject. While the council members aren’t looking for big increases in pay, they did discuss how their raises may play in public.

“I think we’re going to take the heat on this any way we go,” Councilman Larry Eaton said.

Mayor Patty Cohen pointed out that the current council has taken on more work than previous councils — especially in the number of meetings — but she reminded them that they’re not in it for the money.

“These jobs, for many years, have been considered a form of public service,” she said.

Bleyhl said the most common way that council members increase council salaries is through an ordinance. Under state law, the salary increases don’t go into effect during the current terms of any of the council members who voted on it. That way, council members can’t increase their salaries, just the salaries of future councils.

The problem with that, Bleyhl said, is that council terms are staggered by two years so that all seats are not up for reelection in the same year. Four council seats are up for election in one year, then two years later, the other three seats are up for reelection.

“There will be two years when sitting council members won’t be making the same pay,” he said, “for doing exactly the same work.”

The benefit of the method, Cohen said, is that council members who set the salaries for future council members know how much time and effort the job entails. At the same time, they can be objective since they aren’t setting their own salaries — unless they win reelection.

“You people are about as clean and free as you can be from being able to benefit from the decision,” she said.

Another option is for the council to create a salary commission. Bleyhl said commissioners are usually made up of five city residents. They set council salaries, which can either be increases or decreases.

The commission’s decision on salaries go into effect immediately, so all council members will be making the same amount. They make the decision completely independent from city council members.

The public has a chance to gather signatures to force a public vote on repealing the proposed raise before it goes into effect.

Bleyhl said the commission would likely look at what council members from similar-sized cities make, as well as the importance of the position itself. After all, council members are basically members of the board of directors of a multi-million dollar organization.

City Administrator Thom Myers said the council members’ salaries are already mid-range among cities of comparable size.

Councilman Eric Gerber said the problem with a salary commission is that they might be too generous. He said a salary commission in the city of Kent gave the council such a big raise that residents got angry. The council members there decided to take back the raise.

The council members also discussed the possibility of imposing regular cost-of-living increases. Gerber suggested that council could receive a per diem amount of $40 for each extra meeting a month beyond the regular meetings.

In the end, the council didn’t make any final decisions. Bleyhl said he would present the council with different options on pay increases at a future meeting.

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