Raising the salary issue

January 13, 1994

Always examine the motives of politicians in an election year -- even self-described non-pols such as Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden.

Mr. Hayden is about to propose legislation that would reduce the official salary of the next executive from $100,700 to $75,920. His motive? He says it's to hold down the executive's salary at a time when county workers are overworked and underpaid. This is a new guise for Mr. Hayden: the county worker's pal. And just in time for his re-election bid.

Proper compensation for the executive is an issue familiar to Mr. Hayden. His predecessor, Dennis Rasmussen, he of the fancy jewelry and the big car, paid dearly for seeming to enjoy the perks of power too much: The public handed Mr. Hayden a shockingly easy victory. Granted, most incumbents fared badly that year, but Mr. Rasmussen doomed himself with what many voters -- and his Republican opponent -- considered a haughtiness unbecoming a public servant.

Clearly with this history in mind, Mr. Hayden wants to put the executive's salary in a virtual deep freeze. To be fair to county employees? More likely to prove to voters that he's no Rasmussen retread.

Whatever the motive, it's a bad move. The county's own Personnel and Salary Advisory Board has recommended a higher salary for the executive, recognizing that the office-holder leads one of Maryland's largest, most complex jurisdictions and is responsible for a billion-dollar budget and nearly three-quarters of a million citizens. Not only does Mr. Hayden get paid less than executives of smaller counties, but he is out-earned by some of his own department heads. This ludicrous situation would only be worsened by the proposed legislation.

Mr. Hayden himself has noted in interviews that local professionals feel discouraged from running for public posts, largely because the hassles appear too great. A salary commensurate with what many private executives earn should be seen as fair compensation -- and reward -- for taking on the challenges of the county executive's office. Also, a big paycheck can help offset the temptation to earn extra cash through scamming.

Citizens generally aren't inclined to begrudge a politician his salary, so long as he isn't ostentatiously indulging in perks. Most people know that being an elected official is a tough job that deserves top pay. Anyway, if they think a pol is overpaid and unworthy, they can do to him what Baltimore County voters did to Dennis Rasmussen in 1990.

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