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What kind of mayor does Langley want?

Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy speaks to the city council at its meeting Dec. 4.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy speaks to the city council at its meeting Dec. 4.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Langley city leaders are poised to finalize and approve the 2014 budget Monday, including Mayor Fred McCarthy’s $53,000 salary.

The mayor’s pay, once divisive in the 1,050-resident Village by the Sea, has raised the issue of what kind of mayor does Langley want and need. Given the city council’s appointment of McCarthy in February and his subsequent unopposed election in November, it would seem the city’s residents approve of a full-time mayor loaded with credentials.

McCarthy spent most of his career in education before retiring as a doctorate-level superintendent of the South Whidbey School District in 2011.

“I’m finding that I’m probably putting in, conservatively, 50 to 70 hours a week, because there’s a lot that’s done on-site and a lot that’s done off-site to keep everything moving,” McCarthy said.

After former mayor Larry Kwarsick resigned in early 2012, three Langley City Council members appointed McCarthy as the interim mayor. Councilmen Hal Seligson and Bruce Allen sought appointment to the mayor’s office and were excused from the appointment process.

When McCarthy sought the position earlier this year, the posted salary was $53,000, plus benefits.

But his recent predecessors may have changed the culture at City Hall and set a precedent for the small South Whidbey city of a professional, full-time mayor with full-time pay.

Five years ago, the mayor was an average resident who served part time with a part-time salary. The last part-time mayor, paid less than $31,000, was Neil Colburn, chef and owner of Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe and a former city councilman of 16 years. Langley’s day-to-day operations were handled by a salaried city administrator who oversaw the finance, planning, public works and police department heads.

Back in 2008, the city council began raising the mayor’s salary. It started out at $14,000 when Colburn was first elected, was raised to $21,000 near the end of his term and eventually lifted to $31,000.

“I think a stipend of $20,000 was fine,” said Colburn, in an interview this week. “I don’t think it’s a full-time job; I don’t think it’s a full-time job of any city with 1,000 people.”

When former Mayor Paul Samuelson was elected, the city administrator position was cut and its duties were consolidated into the mayor’s office. The city administrator’s salary was about $51,000 in 2008. The city council amended the mayoral salary ordinance to $51,513.

But former Mayor Larry Kwarsick rode in like a white knight following legal issues at City Hall under Samuelson. Kwarsick was familiar with Langley as its planning director and promised to reduce the job to a part-time position with part-time pay of $31,000. He eliminated the mayor’s assistant position and moved those responsibilities to the public works director. The savings allowed the Langley Police Department to hire a fourth police officer in 2012.

But in early 2013, Kwarsick resigned over falsifying a city document when he was the planning director.

That led to McCarthy’s appointment as mayor by the city council. One of his first City Hall shakeups was reassigning the assistant duties to the office administrator and to himself.

On Whidbey Island, Langley’s mayor earns more than the mayor of Oak Harbor, a city with of about 22,260, according to the 2012 U.S. Census. Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley has a $50,000 salary — though he returns 20 percent of it to the city. Oak Harbor does, however, have a city manager who earns about $145,000 in salary and benefits.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard is the highest paid mayor on the island with a salary around $66,000. The Town of Coupeville, about 1,865 residents according to Census data, also operates without a town administrator. Those duties are handled by the mayor.

“I don’t know that one needs to pay a mayor in this environment a large ‘professional’ salary,” said Seligson, who did not seek re-election this fall and will attend his final council meeting Monday, Dec. 16.

The mayor, however, is not the highest paid employee in Langley City Hall. Other department heads, such as the police chief, planning director and public works director, earn more.

McCarthy said the mayor’s salary is poised to revert to $31,000 in 2016, based on a city ordinance. Having won the fall election, McCarthy will fulfill Kwarsick’s vacated term which expires in 2015. The city will have to determine whether to leave that salary amount alone with the expectation of a full-time mayor or not.

“The pay level is always going to be a matter of a difference of opinion,” said McCarthy, who made twice his mayor’s salary as the schools superintendent. “It’s a decision the city has to make, what kind of leadership does it want.”

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