Hearing pushed on city raises

Councilman Mitchell says public should have a chance to testify on bill

March 15, 2007|By john fritze | john fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. called yesterday for a hearing and a vote on proposed pay raises for the city's elected officials, igniting what could become the first political showdown of this election year.

Responding to a proposal pending in the City Council that would give double-digit salary increases to the mayor, City Council president and other officials, Mitchell said the public should have a chance to testify on the bill. He said he does not support the raises.

As news of Mitchell's position spread through City Hall yesterday, some said he is grandstanding on a politically touchy issue in an election year. Others said he is reflecting the position of taxpayers.

After Mitchell's announcement yesterday, several other officials quickly agreed, including Mayor Sheila Dixon.

"This is something that shouldn't just slide through," said Mitchell, who formally announced his candidacy for mayor in January. "I think the majority of people expected there'd at least be a hearing on it."

The proposal, which would increase the mayor's salary from $125,000 to $148,000 next year, was drafted by a compensation commission that was created by city referendum last year. Mitchell and his main opponent, Dixon, then City Council president, along with most other members of the council, supported that effort.

The charter requires that once the commission makes its recommendations, the proposal be introduced at the next meeting of the City Council. The council may approve or reject it, but cannot change the amounts. If the council took no official action -- which until yesterday appeared to be the most likely course -- the new salaries would have become law.

Mitchell said he supports the concept of the commission, which was ultimately approved by 71 percent of city voters, but that the council should not take the easy way out on the issue by receiving the pay increases without taking a vote.

Under the proposal, pay for most council members would increase from $48,000 to $57,000.

"Questions have arisen from citizens asking what we have done to deserve a raise," Mitchell wrote in a two-page letter he sent to Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake yesterday.

At an afternoon gathering before the City Council meeting Monday -- before the letter was sent -- Rawlings-Blake said she was open to a hearing on the proposal if she heard from members who had concerns. A Rawlings-Blake spokesman reiterated that position yesterday and said the council staff is working to schedule a hearing before the full council.

"The president said that if there was opposition that came forward that she would be happy to schedule a hearing," said the spokesman, Shaun E. Adamec.

Dixon's administration also said yesterday it supports a hearing on the pay raises. Last week, the administration said it would not lobby in favor of the increases and that the mayor was waiting to see what action the council would take.

"Mayor Dixon is pleased that Councilman Mitchell agrees with her that the public must be involved in the process," Dixon's spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, said yesterday.

"She believes that politics should play no role in this process," he said. "She supports the public having an opportunity to voice their opinion and offer their suggestions about not only the pay raises but the performance of their elected officials."

Baltimore last increased pay for elected officials in 2000. Raises would not begin until the next term, which starts in December. Officials cannot directly give themselves raises, which means incumbents, including Dixon, would have to win this year's municipal election before receiving the extra money.

The proposed increases are not out of line with pay in other big cities. Mayors in Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington get higher salaries. Mitchell said his greatest concern is with a provision of Baltimore's proposal that calls for a 2.5 percent annual increase for all elected officials.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is running against Rawlings-Blake for council president, said he also supports a hearing.

"Government should be transparent," Harris said. "The public should be part of the process."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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