Silence from City Council translates into pay raises

March 27, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun Reporter

Without discussion, a vote or a mention on its official agenda, Baltimore's City Council approved pay raises for the city's top elected officials last night -- including an 18 percent raise for the mayor -- by letting pass a deadline to stop the controversial proposal.

The mayor, comptroller, president and vice president of the City Council and the remaining City Council members -- 17 elected officials in all -- will begin receiving the raises in the next term, which starts in December. The increases range from 18 percent to 26 percent.

Earlier discussions over the raises, which will cost taxpayers $189,000 in the first year, quickly became a political issue in this year's local elections when several members of the council who are running for higher office questioned not only the salary bumps but the process by which they were approved.

"For me, I looked at the fact that there needed to be a hearing. It couldn't just slide by, and that was the main thing," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running for mayor and who requested that a hearing be scheduled on the raises.

The process -- which now allows the council to approve pay raises by taking no action -- was set up in a charter amendment supported by all but one member of the City Council as well as nearly 70 percent of city voters in a referendum last year. The new law, which was intended to remove the politics from the process of pay raises, created a compensation commission to recommend salaries every four years.

The seven-member commission was appointed by the mayor -- in this case, Martin O'Malley made the appointments before he became governor -- the City Council and the comptroller. The council introduced the commission's recommendations March 12.

Council members had until April 1 to approve the raises, reject them or take no action. If they took no action, the proposed raises would become law. Last night's meeting was the last scheduled before the April 1 deadline in which the members could have acted -- but the proposed resolution was not included on the agenda, and the issue was never officially discussed.

"The overwhelming majority of Baltimore voters decided to empanel an independent committee to determine the salaries of elected officials," said Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who took over the post in January, largely inheriting the debate. "Understanding that that was the wish of the public, the council chose not to reject the recommendations."

At a March 22 hearing, the council voted 3-8, with one abstention, not to reject the proposed increases, a de facto approval. The nuance -- that the council voted not to reject the proposal, rather than voting directly to approve it -- is important. Because the council never voted directly on the measure, it took no official position. That means the proposal does not have to be signed by Mayor Sheila Dixon to take effect.

Only one member of the public showed up to testify at the hearing.

The salaries set by the proposal are not out of line with other cities, including nearby Philadelphia and Washington. The mayor's salary will increase from $125,000 to $148,000, shy of the $200,000 salary drawn by Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the $165,000 to which Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street is entitled.

On the other hand, the increase will bring the mayor's salary just under O'Malley's as governor, which is $150,000 a year.

For the city comptroller, currently Joan M. Pratt, the salary will increase nearly 23 percent, from $80,000 to $98,000 a year. For City Council president, the salary will jump from $80,000 to $98,000. Individual council members' pay will increase from $48,000 to $57,000 a year.

Included in the proposal is an annual cost-of-living adjustment of 2.5 percent for each position.

Officials cannot directly vote themselves raises, which is why the new salaries will not kick in until December -- after this year's local elections. Still, turnover on the City Council is generally low, and several of the members of the council do not face serious opposition.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, the only member who rejected the charter amendment when it was first introduced, said she has heard from constituents who are concerned about a process that allows the council to approve salary increases by taking no action. She was one of three members who voted to reject the proposed salary increases this month.

"When I described what the legislation was, many were concerned about the ability of the City Council to just take a walk, basically," Clarke said, adding she was glad to see that council leadership held a hearing. "It needed to come to a vote. ... I felt that we really needed to step up to the plate and be for it or against it."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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