Pigging out at public expense

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

May 02, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

What we need now, I suppose, is a charm school for elected officials.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's bill to raise council salaries next year by a whopping 24 percent lasted only a week before she was forced to snatch it off the table again.

But I'm still reeling from her shocking display of bad taste.

Clarke says she withdrew her bill because of an opinion by the city solicitor that it may not be legal.

But I'd like to think that public outrage had at least a little something to do with it.

Or maybe her conscience began to twinge.

I'd like to think she eventually came to feel that proposing to let the council gorge themselves on public funds while others go hungry is not what nice people do.

These are hard times, recessionary times, tighten-the-belt and bite-the-bullet times. Other city employees have just agreed to surrender a negotiated pay raise this summer.

Every day brings more news of cutbacks and layoffs and give-backs in both the public and private sectors. Businessmen are going bankrupt. Whole families join the ranks of the homeless.

All of this misery, needless to say, need not affect our imperial council. Just because the riffraff and rabble are suffering doesn't mean council members must suffer, too.

But gee! Did Clarke have to rub our noses in it?

After all, Marie Antoinette reportedly offered to feed the starving masses cake during the French Revolution.

Our rulers are stuffing their own faces.

A 24 percent pay raise is more than five times the national inflation rate. The council's last raise, in 1987, totaled $10,000. This would have been the fourth consecutive raise council members have received. (The Charter requires council members only to vote on raises for the next council, although most members fully expect to be re-elected.)

Wouldn't it have been more tactful of council members to make at least some symbolic display of commiseration with the little people?

Maybe they could wear dark clothing until the recession ends.

Maybe they could make a point not to laugh out loud in public.

Maybe they could even try to squeeze by on the paltry $29,000 a year they get now -- $29,000, mind you, that is in addition to their other sources of income.

I don't want you to think I'm singling out poor Mary Pat for abuse. A number of leading lights have been pigging out at public expense.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has spent the past several months railing at state workers because of their voracious appetites during these troubled times.

Not only will state employees not get a raise this year, not only have some of them been laid off, but Schaefer also wants those who have retained their jobs to put in a longer work week for the same pay -- sort of an involuntary donation of their honest labor for the general good.

Meanwhile, the governor has pocketed a $35,000 raise (which is a higher increase than the average worker's total salary) and the public be damned. While the average worker tries to get by on about $28,000 a year, Schaefer, poor man, will try to eke out a living on $120,000. He apparently couldn't make it on $85,000.

Most state legislators, who cried out in horror when they learned they were to get a $2,000 raise this year, managed to squelch their revulsion and pocket the dough. The state budget office said yesterday that only 14 legislators, three senators and 11 delegates, have returned their raises to the general fund.

And then there's the U.S. Congress.

Congressional leaders tried to slip a 51 percent pay raise through two years ago, but backed down when citizens rose up in protest. Instead, they settled for a slightly more modest stepped raise that netted House members a 25 percent raise this year, plus a cost of living increase. Senators got a 10 percent raise this year.

None of this is to say that our ruling elite do not deserve to live well.

I acknowledge that they are smarter than the rest of us or they would not have been elected. I agree that they should be insulated from the everyday ravages of life so that their decision-making can be made in a calm, blissful vacuum with no correspondence to real life.

I only wish they could display a greater sense of decorum in their gluttony.

That's why I recommend charm school.

If I'm going to be fed upon -- and I guess I will have to learn to live with that-- then at least let me be fed upon by someone with class.

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