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Langley council clarifies mayor's role, pay

The city council moved to clarify embattled Mayor Paul Samuelson’s role and compensation during a spirited session Tuesday night.

The council unanimously voted to repeal two wrongly worded ordinances that had come under legal fire regarding the mayor’s situation, and adopted two others to replace them.

The measures had been tabled by the council three weeks earlier to gather more information, while the mayor’s compensation continued to be a hot topic in the community.

“We’re on clear legal grounds,” said Councilwoman Fran Abel, who with Councilman Robert Gilman did the additional research into state laws on pay for elected officials.

“We need to move on with this,” Abel said Tuesday.

“Now we have some facts,” added Councilwoman Rene Neff. “We have some clarity.”

The new ordinances make clear that the mayor is the elected chief executive and administrative official of the city, but not a city employee eligible for sick leave, comp time or vacation pay.

The ordinances also make clear that they pertain only to Samuelson’s current term. Any new pay provisions that apply to future mayors would be determined by the city council when a new mayor takes office.

Gilman said this arrangement gives the city council the flexibility to define a future mayor’s role and salary based on the person’s qualifications and how much time he or she wants to devote to the job.

Council members Russell Sparkman, Neff, Gilman and Abel voted in favor of the replacement ordinances. Councilman Bob Waterman was on a teaching trip to New Mexico.

Samuelson stepped aside for the portion of the council meeting that concerned his pay, and took no part in the discussion.

Returning to his seat after the ordinances were approved, he thanked those who have supported him during the controversy, and choked up briefly at mention of his family.

“This has been a very tense situation for our city, and not a very productive one for us,” Samuelson said.

He vowed to spend the rest of his term working for the betterment of Langley.

“There have been a lot a changes, and lots more to follow,” the mayor said. “I believe in this community, and I intend to take us there.”

The new ordinances spell out that the mayor’s office includes a full-time mayor and a part-time administrative assistant. Samuelson’s assistant, Kathleen Landel, works 20 hours per week for an annual salary of $31,194.

Under the new ordinances, Samuelson will continue to receive a budgeted annual salary of $53,532, and is responsible for “directing and controlling the overall operation of the city to assure optimum service to the community.”

In addition to his salary, he will continue to receive medical and dental benefits. He currently receives a benefits package worth about $18,000.

According to state law, Samuelson also will have the option of participating in the state Public Employment Retirement System, once he’s eligible.

The state’s constitution says elected officials can participate in the retirement system if they make at least $769.50 per month and have been vested for at least five years. The city council has no say in the matter. Even so, one of the new ordinances passed this week makes it clear he is entitled to seek a state pension in the future.

Samuelson’s salary puts him well at the top of the list for mayors of cities and towns of 1,500 population or fewer.

Issue raised in July

The mayor’s compensation has been under a public microscope since early July, when it was learned that Langley City Treasurer Debbie Mahler had asked the county prosecutor to investigate her concerns that Samuelson was getting paid for vacation time he hadn’t earned.

An earlier ordinance that said Samuelson was entitled to the same benefits as city department heads left open the possibility that the mayor could accrue vacation days, comp time and sick leave, which attorneys outside the city subsequently determined was unlawful.

City council members later said they never intended to classify Samuelson as a city employee, despite such language in the ordinance they passed in November 2008.

The council has raised the pay for the mayor position five times since 2006.

On Tuesday, Sparkman said that Samuelson is costing the city $16,000 a year more than the previous system of a full-time city administrator and a part-time mayor. But he and Neff said the streamlining and restructuring implemented by the mayor since he took office have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings across the board in the city’s budget.

“When the budget crisis hit us, we could have been in a much worse situation,” Sparkman said.

Like most cities and towns, Langley is facing deficits and more cuts due to declining revenues in the recession.

State law forbids the lowering of an elected official’s salary during the official’s current term, but that salary can be changed for the next term of office.

Gilman said that reverting to a base salary for the next elected mayor would give the city council the option to tailor a compensation package based on the new person’s plan for the job.

He said that that person would make known his or her intention to become a full-time or part-time mayor during the campaign, so voters would know what to expect. Once elected, the new mayor would submit a plan for the job, and the council would set job requirements and compensation accordingly, Gilman said.

He said that in the end it would be up to the council to determine whether the new mayor would be full- or part-time, even if the candidate were to run on a full-time platform and expected full-time pay.

“In a small town, there’s a limited number of qualified people to be mayor,” he said. “This gives us flexibility.”

But Langley resident Barbara Seitle said the most important thing for the city was to attract candidates who can handle the mayor’s job, and that appropriate compensation should be spelled out.

“You want a professional, someone who knows what they’re doing,” Seitle said.

“You’ll still find people to run for the office.”

Let’s talk about it

Gilman also said that a broader discussion about the role of Langley’s mayor should take place before the job comes up for a vote again.

Neff agreed.

“Let’s get this over and done with, then have a conversation with the community about what they would like,” she said.

About a dozen people attended Tuesday night’s meeting, and several applauded Samuelson when he returned to the council table following adoption of the ordinances.

Langley resident Sharen Heath said Samuelson may not be getting paid enough.

“This is a small town, but not a simple town,” Heath said. “It’s a complex operation.”

“Paul is an exceptional mayor,” she continued, adding that Samuelson probably made more money as a barber then he does now.

“I’ve talked to many people who feel he may be under-compensated,” Heath said.

Paper criticized

Earlier in the meeting, Paul Schell, former Seattle mayor and owner of the Inn at Langley, criticized the Record for its recent series of reports about the controversy.

“These are tough times, and we need to act positive and not get crabby,” Schell said.

“We need to be pulling together,” he added, saying that for a community newspaper, the Record’s coverage made him “sad.”

“Criticism is always healthy, when it’s fair,” Schell said.

But Langley resident and property owner Kathleen Waters defended the newspaper’s right to print stories that aired out the issues.

“A lot of people here have been fearful about expressing their opinions,” said Waters, herself a former journalist. She called the Record’s coverage “very courageous.”

“Journalists are professionals,” she added. “They’re not somebody off the street who got a job.”

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