Langley council asks for a do-over on mayor’s pay

LANGLEY — With legal questions still dogging the city’s attempts to pay Paul Samuelson for his full-time work as mayor for the Village by the Sea, the Langley City Council tabled an ordinance Monday night that was meant to end the ongoing brouhaha over the mayor’s pay.

Langley has been mired in public controversy over the mayor’s pay since early July, after city leaders learned City Treasurer Debbie Mahler had asked the county prosecutor to investigate alleged “improper actions” by Samuelson. At the time, Mahler said Samuelson was trying to get paid for working on the city’s behalf while on family vacations out of state.

On Monday, council members bemoaned the negative press accounts that have detailed the pay dispute and trumpeted Samuelson’s accomplishments since taking over in 2008.

But they also turned a more critical eye to a proposed ordinance that would clean up problems created by two earlier ordinances that made the mayor a full-time, paid official and gave him the same benefit package earned by city department heads.

Council members said they wanted to delete a section of the new ordinance that would let the mayor collect a state pension when he retires. Some also said they wanted to delete a carryover from the mayor’s previous pay ordinance — one that makes only Samuelson eligible for a $53,532 annual salary — so the next mayor would not receive the previous part-time pay of $21,000.

Several in the crowd at Monday’s meeting urged the council to abolish the special deal for Samuelson.

Jim Anderson reminded the council of the recent advice they had received from Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, an organization that provides expert advice to cities. The city had asked lawyers to examine the ordinance adopted in November 2008 that deemed Samuelson a city employee.

The new ordinance, Anderson said, did not meet the criteria set out for the mayor’s role by the research center.

“You cannot create an ordinance that is exceptional for one person,” he said.

“The problem with this ordinance, the principal one, is it doesn’t meet this test,” Anderson said. “The council is once again wasting time, our resources and our money.”

Anderson said the council should craft an ordinance that sets the salary for anyone who becomes mayor, and not just the one in office now.

“Write an ordinance that endures over time. It is not driven by the personality of Paul; it’s driven by the weight of the office,” he said.

Anderson, and others, also said the work done on the latest ordinance by the city’s legal team shows they were, once again, not up to the task.

“The second thing is, what does this mean about our city attorneys? I think they are wholly incompetent. This is the fourth stab at this,” he said. “It’s a joke.”

The city has faced snowballing legal fees since concerns were raised in December by Mahler over the mayor’s vacation pay. The city spent more than $7,300 on legal fees for personnel issues during the five-month span of December 2009 through April 2010.

At Monday’s council meeting, city officials noted the July bill from Langley’s lawyers totaled $10,595. Added to earlier attorney bills this year, the city has spent $24,121 — well above the $12,108 the city set aside to cover legal expenses this year.

City council urged to ‘get it right’

Even so, some said an additional review of the mayor’s new pay ordinance would be money well spent.

“With all the conversation throughout the community, with the angst that everybody’s feeling; you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound,” said Craig Carty. “Go ahead and spend the extra hundred bucks, a thousand bucks, whatever it is. Get it right.”

Some on the council, too, criticized the work of the city attorneys on the mayor’s pay issue.

“I do need to say, I have some questions, some disappointments ... with the performance of the city attorney’s office,” said Councilman Robert Gilman.

Gilman recalled that Langley’s legal team had reviewed the issues over the mayor’s pay before the council adopted an ordinance in February that was meant to resolve concerns over the mayor’s vacation pay.

“I just wish the city attorney had found that stuff,” Gilman said. “We now have a whole trail of consequences that has come out of this and a lot of collateral damage to deal with.”

“I would love to know what the city attorney is willing to do to own up to their part in this whole [situation],” he said.

The problems with the mayor’s pay ordinances date back to October 2008, when the council adopted an ordinance that set the hours, duties, salaries and benefits for the mayor.

Council members later learned — after the county prosecutor declined to investigate the allegations made by the city treasurer — that they could not dictate the working hours of the mayor or legally make him a city employee.

A subsequent ordinance, adopted in November 2008, more than doubled the salary of the mayor and set out a 40-hour work week.

But it also gave him the benefits package equivalent to those received by department heads, and Mahler, the city treasurer, raised concerns after the mayor used up all of his vacation days but was still taking paid vacation days.

At Monday’s meeting, some on the council said Mahler should have said something about the vacation-pay issue much earlier.

Councilwoman Rene Neff said Mahler should have shared her concerns with the council.

“I’m very sad that you didn’t do that, because I feel like it’s caused a very huge problem for the city of Langley,” Neff said.

But Mahler, speaking at length for the first time publicly about the controversy, said it never became an issue until the mayor used up all of his allotted vacation days. That didn’t happen until the end of last year, she said.

“I didn’t have an issue of him not having time sheets,” Mahler said.

Instead, she was worried that Samuelson was taking more vacation time than what was allowed under his benefits package. The ordinance had clearly made him a city employee, with the benefits to match.

“It was when he exceeded those benefits, that I brought up the question,” she said.

She told the council she shared her concerns with the mayor and city attorney, but nothing changed.

“I went to the mayor and I went to the city attorney and I was shut down by both of them,” Mahler said.

She added that she didn’t bring her worries to the council because two other employees had been reprimanded earlier for sharing concerns with council members.

Council members mull over possible changes

Council members spent part of the meeting debating if they had the power to decrease the mayor’s salary once it had been set, and if his benefits package should be changed.

In response to a question from the council, Mahler said the city would have to make contributions into the mayor’s retirement pension — dating back to his first day as an elected official — if the provision were retained to have Samuelson eligible for the Washington State Public Employment Retirement System.

Neff said the inclusion of the pension benefit put the city in a “pickle” because of Langley’s budget problems. But Samuelson said he wasn’t interested in enrolling in the program, so council members agreed it should not be offered.

“We can’t afford it right now. And he doesn’t want it anyway,” Neff said.

Council praises work of mayor

Council members said they stood by their decision to make Samuelson a full-time mayor, noting the thousands of dollars he had saved while reorganizing city government. Recent press reports did not show the reality of what has been happening at city hall, some said.

Councilman Russell Sparkman praised Samuelson as an “agent of change.”

“He’s made the tough decisions; he’s made the tough decisions that you’d want your chief executive to make,” Sparkman said.

“I’m really glad of the decision we’ve made. I’m glad that Paul was there when the poop began to hit the fan with the economy last year and our budget,” Sparkman said.

Sparkman said his votes on the mayor’s pay ordinances were not influenced by the fact that he is one of the mayor’s tenants.

“I take this job really seriously,” Sparkman said.

“I take the fiduciary responsibility very seriously. If I thought Paul was a schmuck and not doing his job ... as mayor here, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about my support for the work that he has done. I’m not a fool,” Sparkman said.

The spirited defense of the mayor, though, prompted criticism from some in the audience.

“It makes me very nervous as a citizen and a taxpayer, that you have separated yourself from that independence that I believe is very representative of our democracy and the way our government should operate,” said Kathleen Waters.

“Each one of you needs to think about us, the citizens, and how we feel we are being represented,” she said.

The council voted 4-1 to table the new ordinance to the next council meeting. Neff was the sole vote against.

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