Wednesday, February 09, 2000

Council pay raises draw flak

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPRINGDALE — Elected officials will consider giving themselves a pay raise this month, a move some fear violates Ohio ethics laws.

        Council members, Mayor Doyle Webster and Clerk of Council Ed Knox could have their annual salaries raised by about 50 percent if the increases are approved. Council members are to consider an ordinance Feb. 16, and the money could start flowing in their checks in April.

        The Ohio Ethics Commission has said it's illegal for elected officials to vote themselves an in-term pay increase. It could cloud decisions about whether the raise would be in a city's best interest, the commission has said. It also denies voters the chance when they go to the polls to know what their representatives will earn.

        But a 1998 court case from Canton, Ohio, opened the door for a challenge to that argument. It allowed officials to approve raises after their re- election, before they start their next term. Springdale's law director, Ken Schneider, cited that case when he told city officials an in-term raise was OK.

        Councilman Steve Galster disagrees. He and Councilman Robert Wilson think voters should decide.

        “Any time you talk about giving yourself a 50 percent increase, even though we haven't had one in such a long time, you want to make sure the people who elected you to office are in favor of it,” Mr. Wilson said.

        While folks disagree about the timing and method of the proposed raises, few dispute Springdale's elected officials deserve them. Salaries haven't increased since 1986, Mr. Webster said. And they lag behind those of some similar communities.

        A survey conducted by the city shows Sharonville's mayor making $27,850 a year, and Reading's making $21,309. Mr. Webster is paid $12,000; council members make $4,500 a year, compared with Sharonville's $8,830 and Blue Ash's $6,600.

        The extra money isn't unreasonable, considering the hours of meetings and extra work required of an elected official, said Councilwoman Marjorie Pollitt, head of council's Finance Committee.

        The money “doesn't make a difference in how we do our job, and if (the raise) doesn't go through, we're still going to have the best interests of the residents in mind as our No. 1 priority,” she said. “But it's still nice to be compensated for the work you do.”

        But questions have arisen about the timing of the raises. Because they would take effect during council's current term, the people who would approve them are the same people who would receive them.

        The Ohio Ethics Commission maintains in-term salary increases are wrong, Executive Director David Freel said. But the Canton case put a chip in that argument.

        In the Canton case, the court said newly re-elected officials voting on pay increases for themselves may appear “self-serving” and “offensive.” But, the court added, those officials would not be taking something of value that could improperly influence their decision-making.

        The Ethics Commission tried to take the Canton case to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the high court refused to consider it.

        Now, Springdale is using the case as justification for an in-term pay increase.

        Other options just aren't as attractive, some officials say.

        The Ethics Commission recommends raises take effect starting with each elected official's new term. But Springdale has staggered council elections, and that would mean some would make more than others for a short time.

        “I feel like everybody up there has the same responsibility for the citizens of Springdale, and we need to have the same salary,” Ms. Pollitt said.

        The raises also could take effect in 2003, when all current seats would have been up for re-election, but some are reluctant to wait that long.

        As for allowing residents to vote on the issue, Mr. Webster said he's against it.

        “I think that would be grossly unfair to put that on the backs of the people to vote on that,” the mayor said. “The charter is very clear that council shall set the salaries for council and the mayor.”

        To avoid future conflicts, Mr. Wilson has suggested Springdale develop a system to increase the pay for elected officials by a set amount on a regular basis.

        In the meantime, Mr. Galster said he'll put any pay increase he receives into an escrow account until he's certain taking the money is ethically sound.

        Here is what Springdale's elected officials make a year, alongside the pay increase they will consider this month:

        • Mayor — $12,000; with raise, $18,000.

        • Clerk/finance director — $9,600; with raise, $14,400.

        • Council member — $4,500; with raise, $6,750.

        • Council president — $5,100; with raise, $7,350.


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