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Langley mayor's salary may stay near current level

LANGLEY — The city’s mayor may keep getting some of the plumpest paychecks in the state — if voters decide to reject a ballot measure in August that would eliminate the position of an elected mayor.

A majority on the city council indicated this week the salary they’ve set for Mayor Paul Samuelson may stay in place.

Several council members said the mayor’s pay — a base salary of $53,532 that makes Samuelson the best-paid mayor in Washington, in terms of population, and number 24 overall on the list of mayor’s pay in more than 250 cities — is well-deserved.

Council members said Langley is unique, and requires a mayor who can devote the time needed to the job without the distraction or strain of a regular job outside city hall.

Councilwoman Rene Neff said it was hard to compare Langley to other cities.

“Every town is different and every town has different needs,” Neff said.

“We have an economy that is very much dependent on tourists,” she said, adding that Langley needs a mayor who can handle administrative duties and is much more than a mere figurehead.

“It’s a position that you want to have someone who is really paying attention and doing a full-time job administering our city so that it doesn’t start to slip away,” Neff said.

The upcoming election for the top spot in city government — and the question of just how city hall should be run — has put Samuelson’s salary under the magnifying glass again.

Council members recalled that when they raised Samuelson’s salary in 2008, it was done with little research on what other cities in Washington were paying their mayors, and was instead based on the pay scale of a city department head. The council was worried about the hours Samuelson was putting in at city hall while still trying to run his business as a barber.

Using a supervisor’s pay scale was reasonable then, and still is, said Councilman Bob Waterman.

“A person could run and become a mayor and not have to run their business or do other things. It was sufficient to be a living wage to be a full-time mayor,” Waterman said.

Waterman indicated he wanted to keep a “living wage” in place for the mayor’s pay, and others agreed.

“I think it’s important to set a compensation that will attract someone who can have a living wage here and doesn’t have to worry about doing a bunch of other jobs, too,” Neff said.

“I think designing the salary around our department head salaries is a fair thing to do,” added Councilwoman Fran Abel.

“This person who sits in this chair is the manager of these employees, and should be making a comparable wage,” she said.

At times, the council talk on the mayor’s salary sounded more like the opening salvos in a campaign to save Langley’s position of elected mayor, rather than a detached discussion of how much the city should set aside for a position that, in most cities, is based on the notion of public service and not paid full-time employment.

Abel praised Samuelson’s work at city hall, and said Langley needed a mayor who would “build our community with a heart ... instead of with a calculator.”

“We expect our mayor, whoever it is, to be a Santa Claus at Christmas, to be a model at the fun and fashion show, to participate in Sustainable Whidbey, to participate in the Council of Governments,” she said.

“We also expect that person to be totally well-informed on legal issues, lawyers, codes, ordinances, RCW ... We want him to educate himself tirelessly on law enforcement, planning, public works and enforcement needs. We’re asking for him or her to be budget director, administrator, personnel manager and property manager. And then we ask, at the same time, for this person to be our friend, our role model for our children, provider of concern for our sick and dying,” Abel said. “We’re not going to get this from someone we hire.”

Langley has a population of roughly 1,100. There are more than 190 cities in Washington larger than Langley, and according to a Record review of mayor salaries, approximately 166 mayors in those cities are paid less than Samuelson. A total of 49 make less than $21,000 — the salary that was previously paid to Langley’s mayor before it was jacked up by the city council in 1998.

In cities that are closer to Langley’s size, a Record review of mayoral pay, based on the 2010 salary survey conducted by the Association of Washington Cities, discovered that only 17 of the 92 mayors in cities and towns with populations between 5,000 and 715 make more than $10,000.

The pending filing period for candidates for the mayor’s job, coupled with new concerns about the existing mayor’s salary ordinance, already dogged by legal and public criticism for more than a year, prompted the new scrutiny of the mayor’s pay.

Candidates for the mayor’s office can begin to file for the General Election on June 6.

Whether the city will still have an elected mayor, however, will be decided well before November’s decision day — when voters fill out their ballots in the Primary Election on a citizen’s petition to get rid of Langley’s elected mayor, so the city council can hire a manager to run city hall.

The city council is expected to finalize a new ordinance that will set the salary for the next mayor at its meeting on June 6. Council members have put the new law on a fast track, so people who want to file as mayoral candidates before June 10 for this fall’s election will know exactly what the position pays.

During this week’s salary talk, two council members said it was valid to look at how mayors are compensated elsewhere.

Councilman Robert Gilman, who originally pushed the proposal to more than double the mayor’s pay, has since questioned whether the salary is the proper amount to pay Langley’s elected mayor.

“We can do whatever we choose to do. But if we were to put in a salary that continues the present salary ... then we would be unique in Washington state for cities under 5,000,” Gilman told his fellow council members at this week’s meeting.

Councilman Hal Seligson said he would continue to research the issue, but hadn’t yet decided on what he thought the mayor should be paid.

“I’m not here for the money and I don’t think any of us are here for the money,” Seligson said. “But clearly, the money is important in this.”

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