Edward Middlebrooks wanted to cut his County Council salary, but found he couldn't. It's against the law.
Based on a legal opinion from the Howard County Office of Law, the County Council has learned that elected officials can neither increase nor reduce their wages during their term -- not even during a budget crisis when they're slashingeveryone else's pay.
"We can't do it if it's illegal," said Councilwoman Maureen Lamb,D-Annapolis. "If elected officials don't follow the law, who will?"
Elected leaders can give money back voluntarily, the opinion says,but they can't change their own paychecks. Council members make between $23,000 and $27,000.
Does that mean County Executive Robert R.Neall, who ordered his own $75,000 salary cut by $5,000 several weeks ago, is breaking the law? Not according to County Attorney Jud Garrett.
Garrett, who agrees with the Howard County opinion, said the money that's being taken out of Neall's pay will be treated as a "voluntary contribution rather than as a legal cut in his salary. It's going to be more like the county paying him his full salary, and him donating 5 percent back to the county. It's a matter of semantics, really."
The opinion, written by Howard County Solicitor Barbara M. Cook, says elected officials cannot reduce their compensation by legislation, nor "by voluntary agreement."
Council members, who have yetto make budget cuts in the legislative branch, say they want to finda legal way to reduce their pay.
"The question is how one does it. Bob Neall has done it," said Councilwoman Diane R. Evans, R-Arnold,the executive's most avid supporter on the council.
Some legislators, however, are concerned because the opinion specifies that any voluntary contributions would be considered a part of gross income and would, therefore, be taxed.
"I have a concern about it," said David G. Boschert, D-Crownsville, who was laid off from his public relations job last year and does consulting work from his home. "To do our fair share, we are willing to sacrifice during these troubled times. The thing is trying to do it so we aren't double taxed."
Lamb said, "I don't think I want to do it. It just doesn't seem right."
Middlebrooks said he, Lamb and Council Chairwoman Virginia P. Clagett, D-West River, prepared a resolution last month to cut the pay of all legislative elected and appointed officials by 5 percent and to reduceother legislative branch employees' pay by 3 percent. The resolutionwas never introduced because of objections from Evans and CouncilmanCarl G. "Dutch" Holland, R-Pasadena, who later sponsored their own resolution to put any legislative branch savings back in the pockets of county employees.
"At this point, we've been stymied as far as getting any real cuts by Dutch and Diane," said Middlebrooks, D-Severn.
A package of about $100,000 worth of legislative branch reductions may be introduced at tomorrow night's council meeting, council members said.
The issue of salary reductions for elected officials arose recently at the state level, said Garrett, a former assistant state attorney general. There, as in Howard County, lawyers said the Maryland Constitution, the Express Powers Act and some county charters prohibit elected leaders from altering their compensation while in office.
This prohibits public officials from increasing their own payand prevents unsuccessful incumbents from reducing the salaries of their successors.
In Anne Arundel, a Salary Standard Commission reviews compensation for the county executive and council every four years. The commission's recommendation is subject to council approval.
Under salaries approved by the council last year, the council chairman makes $27,000 annually; the vice chairman, $24,500; and other council members, $23,000. Under law, those salaries could increase by $1,000 Dec. 1.
Under the law, Neall's pay could increase to $78,000,but he will not accept the raise, said his press secretary, Louise Hayman.
No one expects a public outcry if, in fact, Neall has overstepped legal boundaries in cutting his wages. "I don't imagine anyone's going to sue him for giving his salary back," Garrett said. "Maybehis wife and children."