Langley mayor’s pay too much, city’s former mayors say

Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson is overpaid, according to those who have held the post before him.

The Langley City Council approved a new ordinance and revised an old one last week that sets out the mayor’s pay and benefits. On a 4-0 vote, the council set Samuelson’s annual salary at $53,532. With benefits, Samuelson receives a yearly compensation package that tops $71,000.

Three of the city’s most recent mayors — Neil Colburn, Lloyd Furman and Dale Elliott — said the city is paying Samuelson too much.

Furman, who rose from the ranks of the city council to become a two-term mayor from 1996 to 2004, called Samuelson’s salary “obscene.”

“That job shouldn’t be a career job,” Furman said, adding that people who run for the mayor’s post should be guided by the spirit of public service.

“It should be a job that they’re doing because they want to give back to the city of Langley,” he said.

Furman, like other previous mayors contacted by the Record, did not blame Samuelson for his pay level. It was a decision made by the council, Furman said, and one that was a mistake.

“I blame the council as much for being naive or unrealistic to pay a small-town mayor that amount of money,” he said.

Furman said he never made much as mayor.

“I think it was probably between $1,000 and $1,100 a month. And no benefits,” he said.

“I think it’s a stretch to be paid $24,000 a year,” Furman added.

He said he donated his salary to the cemetery fund because it was “in trouble” during his first two years as mayor.

Much of the debate over Samuelson’s pay has revolved around the difference between a mayor who serves as “part time” versus one who serves as a “full- time” mayor.

Langley council members have repeatedly said they wanted to increase Samuelson’s pay because of the many hours he was putting in at city hall, and they were afraid that the work would take a toll and lead to burnout. Samuelson was still working as a barber when he became mayor in 2008.

Furman said he never considered the job “part time.” He put in the hours needed to get the job done, he said.

“I know I worked more hours than my predecessors. I also worked more hours than the present mayor,” Furman said.

“Lloyd was the first one there and the last one home for eight years,” recalled Colburn, Langley’s last mayor before Samuelson.

Colburn served on the council with Furman, and remembered how he would drive past city hall early in the morning on the way to his restaurant and see a light on and Furman in the window.

“He took his job very, very seriously,” Colburn said.

Growing controversy

Internal turmoil over the mayor’s pay became public in early July after new reports that Langley City Treasurer Debbie Mahler had asked the county prosecutor to investigate alleged “improper actions” by Samuelson amid her concerns that the mayor was getting paid for vacation time he had not earned.

The controversy grew after reports that Langley had overspent its budget for legal advice by thousands of dollars after Samuelson directed the city’s attorneys to review personnel issues at city hall. He also asked the attorneys to contact an employment firm in Bellevue to find potential high-level replacement workers for the city after Mahler confronted the mayor about his pay in mid-December.

Worried that Mahler would be fired, a group of South End residents recently started a legal defense fund on her behalf.

Colburn said he is constantly asked about the mayor’s pay.

“Just about every time I go to the store or when I go to work out, or people will mention it to me when I am at work at the restaurant,” Colburn said.

“The question I’m asked the most often is, ‘How can you justify that amount of pay in this economy?’

“I tell them I don’t really understand it,” he said.

Colburn also donated his salary back to the city when Langley was facing a tough time financially. He also paid out of his own pocket for a campaign to raise property taxes in the Village by the Sea, a campaign that was led by Samuelson and was approved by voters.

Colburn said he was hesitant to weigh in on the controversy.

“They’re partially all friends of mine,” he said.

Cuts are rampant

Colburn said cities and counties across the state having been cutting back because of the bad economy — and he pointed to the cuts county commissioners had made to their own compensation packages.

“Here we are, a town of 1,000 where people have been very vocal about how difficult this economy is to function in, and we keep raising the mayor’s salary,” he said. “I am troubled not so much on Paul’s account, but I don’t understand where that’s coming from on the council level.”

The city council has raised the mayor’s salary multiple times in the past two years.

In September 2008, the council nearly doubled Samuelson’s pay to $31,000 from that earned by Colburn.

In November 2008, the council increased the mayor’s pay to $51,513, and more recently, to $53,532.

Samuelson makes more money as mayor than any other mayor in cities and towns in Washington state that have a population two or three times the size of Langley, with Coupeville as the sole exception. Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard has an annual salary of $63,756.

Colburn was assisted by a full-time city administrator, but Samuelson announced before he took office that he would cut that job and instead hire a part-time assistant to help him at city hall. It was a move that Colburn opposed.

Furman and other previous mayors said the job is, at times, a thankless position.

“It’s a demanding job, there’s no question about that. Ninety-five percent of the people are wonderful to deal with, but there’s a few percent that’ll give everybody a bad time,” he said.

“I was on call full time, 24/7,” recalled former mayor Dale Elliott, who served a few terms before Furman.

“It is really wasted money paying a mayor,” Elliott said.

Instead, the city should hire a professional manager and institute a council-manager form of government, he said.

Under the council-manager form of government, a mayor is elected from the ranks of the council as the ceremonial head of the city, while a professional manager hired by the council runs the day-to-day business of city hall.

“After 12 years of being in city government, I came away with one strong opinion: I think the city council/mayor-type government is just very unrealistic for a small town.

I feel very strongly about that,” Elliott said.

“I think the mayor should be paid nothing. All the money should be put into a good, qualified city manager. It’s the best money you can spend.

“Don’t go cheap on that either,” he added. “The city is now paying by trying to go cheap on paying a city attorney.”

The talent pool isn’t deep enough to have someone with the professional skills to be mayor. They learn on the job, and that’s a costly process, he said.

Elliott recalled that he had been an architect and a city planner, and had earned an advanced degree in urban design before becoming mayor.

“I still was unqualified, and it was on-the-job training,” he said. “And on-the-job training is by trial and error.”

What’s ahead?

Elliott tried years ago, without success, to have Langley switch to a council-manager form of government.

At a council meeting last month, some asked the council to explore the idea of the council-manager form, or to look closely at a compensation package that would apply to any person who becomes the mayor of Langley.

The current pay package is a special deal for Samuelson only, and the pay level will shrink at the end of his current term to the level paid to the prior mayor.

Councilman Robert Gilman said that arrangement provides the city “flexibility” in how the next mayor will service the city.

The next elected mayor may want to work “full time” without an administrator, or the next mayor may want to be “part time” and have an administrator.

Because state law forbids decreasing the pay of someone currently in office, the council will be able to adjust the administration’s budget to fit the role that the new mayor has chosen.

Gilman said the job of the mayor has changed with the city over time.

“As the challenges of running any city have grown more complex — more state laws, more requirements, more federal requirements, etc. — the task of being the city’s chief executive has also increased,” Gilman said.

“The previous mayors are no doubt reflecting on their own experience, which was in a different time,” Gilman said. “I’m not saying they didn’t have their challenges, but there was a different set of expectations.”

Having a higher pay level for the mayor, he said, broadens the pool of candidates for the job.

“It needs to be something that someone can actually live on,” he said.

For his part, however, Furman said the city should adopt a pay level for the mayor’s position, and not for a particular individual.

“I think there should be a salary schedule, and the voters will be able to vote on who should get that salary,” Furman said.

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