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Salary spat mires council

An independent group recommended no raises, and now may be disbanded.

The City Council may remodel rather than demolish a commission that recommended no pay hikes for city councilors.

“There’s a possible hybrid here,” Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said of future efforts that may revamp the city’s Salary Commission. “The citizen commission could do research and make recommendations (while) having an open, public process.”

The commission, which reviews and recommends salaries for elected officials, was convened in January at the request of several council members.

The $600 councilors are paid each month isn’t enough to match inflation and the positions’ growing demands, said Councilman Jim Llewellyn, who initiated the six-member citizen commission’s reformation.

But the eventual recommendation of no pay raises spurred Llewellyn in June to call for the commission’s disbandment on grounds that it had not fulfilled its intended purpose of raising pay.

“Six-hundred dollars was not enough three or four years ago,” Llewellyn said, referring to earlier efforts to boost the council’s monthly stipend. “And now we have more meetings, maybe trips and our time commitments have gone dramatically up. Email traffic is more than triple.

“Most meetings are not at night, requiring those that are not retired to give up time in which they’d normally be making a living. For me it’s more about money.”

For Councilman Bill Knobloch, the pay raise could broaden the base of candidates running for office. He said many working adults would need additional financial incentive to take time off work and bear the council’s increasing burdens.

“We’ve got to make this worthwhile for the entire economic strata on this island,” Knobloch said, otherwise the council will continue to be dominated by wealthy people or retirees.

He also mentioned an increasingly strenuous workload, and offered some 5,000 emails in his council account as proof.

But some members of the commission said there’s no set standard on how to match council pay with the council’s duties.

“I don’t doubt you get those emails,” said commission member Ed Kushner. “But what do we pay you? By the email?”

Kushner said the commission was “proud of what we did” in not recommending a pay hike, adding that “reams of data from other cities” went into their decision-making.

According to commission research, Mountlake Terrace, a city with a population comparable to Bainbridge’s 22,000, councilors earned $800 a month in 2002. Anacortes, population 15,000, also gave its councilors $800 a month.

But on Mercer Island, with it’s population and per capita income similar to Bainbridge, councilors netted only $100 a month. In nearby cities, Bremerton and Port Orchard council members earn just under $800 per month.

Commission members said city size and demographics were only part of what the commission considered when it made its recommendation not to raise pay. Scrutinizing the council’s range of responsibilities was key to the commission’s recommendation.

Unlike other cities, the Bainbridge council is not directly involved in the decision-making of local parks, schools, a fire department or libraries, commission members said.

But the island’s council must deal with issues other councils don’t face, said Knobloch.

“Look at Mercer Island,” he said. “Their council does housekeeping stuff because they’re already built-out.”

Bainbridge Island, on the other hand, must deal with complex growth issues over a vast geographic area, he said.

Some on the council expressed support for the commission’s work and urged the council to move on.

“I’m tired of the city council discussing what it gets paid,” said Councilwoman Christine Rolfes. “I’m disappointed that, just because someone didn’t like the recommendation, they would propose to abolish the salary commission.”

Councilman Nezam Tooloee said he was concerned that dissolving the commission may give the council the authority to raise its own pay.

“The right way to do it is through an independent salary commission,” said Tooloee. “Elected officials making decisions on the salaries of elected officials doesn’t pass the ‘squeaky-clean test.’”

But Vancil believes the commission failed another test.

“It doesn’t pass the ‘sunshine test,’” she said. “I have trouble with any decision about taxpayer money decided behind closed doors. I’m concerned the commission lacks public process.”

Commission member Kevin Dwyer defended the commission’s integrity.

“We weren’t trying to hold these meetings in any clandestine way,” he said. “We were very balanced and stand by our work.”

The council again referred proposed action on the commission to the city Operations Coordinating Committee for more discussion on possible changes.

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