Council set to explain disputed salary boosts

January 29, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

The Columbia Council, admitting that it was wrong in hastily adopting without public comment new, higher salary ranges for nearly all Columbia Association managers, has scheduled a question-and-answer session to try to redeem itself.

The admission came as the council was changing its new nonbinding referendum policy, which will let Columbia residents bring issues to a communitywide vote by collecting 2,500 petition signatures.

It did so by stripping council members of the right to put issues on the ballot themselves by majority vote -- leading one member to question whether the panel is truly interested in hearing from the public.

"Council members who didn't want the advisory vote decided to weaken it," said Councilwoman Norma Rose who, along with Councilman Chuck Rees, opposed the revised referendum policy.

"They're worried about opening up the process."

Both actions came Thursday at a tense, four-hour meeting at which the council moved to stem damage from several recent proposals that have drawn criticism from residents.

At that same meeting, the council agreed to conduct an independent audit of a proposed deal with the Rouse Co. to buy 5 acres for a $1.4 million recreational vehicle storage yard, after residents questioned the price and other aspects of the arrangement.

The council sets policy and the budget for Columbia Association (CA), the nonprofit corporation that oversees Columbia's recreational facilities, community services and parkland. CA's annual budgets total nearly $40 million.

The panel's move on the salary study came in the form of an announcement that the consultant who studied CA's salary ranges will attend the Feb. 9 meeting and answer questions about the report -- at a cost of $500 to $700.

The new pay scales, projected to increase expenses by $48,000 next year, raise the salary limit for 29 of 34 association managers.

The top scale for 19 of those jobs will increase by 10 percent or more -- two to a maximum of $114,000 a year.

The council adopted the pay scales Jan. 12 when it first VTC discussed the report in open session and gave it to The Sun after refusing several earlier requests for a copy.

Its fast-track vote came after several months of discussions in closed-door sessions.

"There are times when one has to say, 'I was wrong.' This is one of those times," said Councilwoman Evelyn A. Richardson of Dorsey's Search village, head of the council subcommittee that oversaw the study.

"I was wrong to ask for an immediate vote."

She insisted that the hasty vote on salary scales "was not done out of arrogance, or to avoid public commentary . . . but to bring closure to an item that had been on the table over a year. In retrospect, we should have allowed an opportunity for public review."

The study by William M. Mercer Inc. based its recommendations on a comparison of salary ranges of 35 CA managers to the pay for similar positions in government, community associations, health clubs, nonprofit organizations and private industry.

No council member suggested Thursday night that the new scales, which take effect May 1, be reconsidered or modified.

Members cite the study showing that salaries of most CA managers lag behind the market and note that only modest salary increases are planned for next year.

David W. Berson, the council's vice chairman, said Thursday that the council sometimes does an unsatisfactory job informing residents about issues, especially those discussed in private sessions.

Despite that self-criticism, Councilwoman Hope Sachwald of Harper's Choice village said council members shouldn't be too hard on one another.

She commended her colleagues for the time and effort they devote to the unpaid job.

"The bottom line is, we put in a lot of hours," she said. "I'm glad I know all of you.

"I want to thank you publicly for your work."

That congratulatory tone broke down when it came time for the council to give tentative approval to long-debated referendum procedures.

The nonbinding referendum, or "advisory vote" -- approved in concept last April -- could be used to measure public opinion, but wouldn't force the council to take action.

Ms. Rose of Wilde Lake, who led the 18-month effort to institute the policy, said she was "astonished" by the 8-2 vote to eliminate the council's ability to put referendum items on the ballot, calling it a radical departure from the policy's original intent.

"To say the only way to get an advisory vote is to get 2,500 signatures really closes us off from what could be a good stream of information and ideas from the community," she said.

Other council members said the change was intended to make the policy fairer to residents, arguing that council members should be bound by the same standards that apply to residents.

"There's a certain arrogance that we can just call for it and others have to get 2,500 signatures," said Councilman Gary Glisan of Oakland Mills village. "Now if we want to bring a vote, we have to do the same thing as citizens. How can that be wrong?"

Ms. Rose questioned that logic Friday.

"It's not arrogant to ask the community for views on questions on which there are different views," she said.

Mr. Rees said some council members feared that they would be forced into putting issues up for referendum or be labeled undemocratic. Mr. Berson said the council wanted to limit the chance that any member would try to put pet issues on the ballot.

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