A prosecutor's pay

May 13, 2007

When Democrat Scott D. Shellenberger was elected Baltimore County state's attorney, he assumed the same salary as Sandra A. O'Connor, his Republican predecessor. But now some are suggesting he should take a $60,000 pay cut, thanks to the peculiar wording of a state law that sets the office's pay. And the fact that that suggestion is coming from former Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey, his unsuccessful Republican opponent (and from Ms. O'Connor, a strong supporter of Mr. Bailey's), has brought some unexpected hard-knuckle politics - or perhaps a bit of sour grapes - to a normally staid office.

Here are the facts: Since the statute was adopted in 1982, Ms. O'Connor has been paid the same salary as a Circuit Court judge of that year, plus an automatic 5 percent annual raise, to a total of $185,000 last year. That made her position the highest-paid prosecutor in the state - at least until the salary of Baltimore City's Patricia C. Jessamy was increased to $225,000 late last year.

But the law also describes the raises as being applied "during the state's attorney's term of office." Mr. Bailey and Ms. O'Connor contend that a new state's attorney means the formula rewinds back to a Circuit Court judge's salary, today about $128,000. That is not Mr. Shellenberger's interpretation, nor that of the county's budget office. They believe "term of office" merely makes clear that the increases are applied annually during an attorney's four-year elected term.

That view is likely to prevail with the County Council, if only because it makes so little sense to pay an elected official on the basis of experience. Such salaries are normally assigned to positions, not individuals. But the dust-up underscores a more serious question: Why should any state's attorney, Ms. O'Connor included, be getting automatic 5 percent pay increases regardless of inflation? At that rate, Mr. Shellenberger's salary will equal Ms. Jessamy's in four years. In 20, the job will be paying close to $500,000.

Fortunately, Mr. Shellenberger and County Executive James T. Smith Jr. agree that changes are needed. One reasonable alternative: Give the County Council authority to set the pay level every four years based on recommendations of an advisory board.

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