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Council vows to rewrite ordinance on mayor’s pay
LANGLEY — On the advice of attorneys inside and outside the city, the city council will rewrite the two-year-old ordinance that made Mayor Paul Samuelson a full-time mayor and gave him a hefty pay raise.
Though council members unanimously agreed Tuesday to make changes to the mayor’s salary ordinance — and to create a two-member committee to wrap it up with haste — some members bemoaned the unwanted attention the controversy over the mayor’s paychecks has brought to the Village by the Sea.
The discord within city hall became public last week, with media reports of City Treasurer Debbie Mahler’s private request for the county prosecutor to investigate alleged “improper actions” by the Langley mayor. Mahler said Samuelson had been paid for vacation time, and noted Samuelson’s claims to be always on the city’s clock, even while on frequent vacation trips to California.
On Tuesday, council members closed ranks behind the mayor and said their adoption of an ordinance that deemed Samuelson an “employee” of the city was a mistake. They also said they never intended his benefits package to include vacation pay.
The ordinance at the center of the controversy, they said, was one that had been copied from an earlier version adopted by the Coupeville council.
“We modeled this idea after what Coupeville had done. This language came from Coupeville,” said Councilwoman Rene Neff.
“I had no intention ever to make you an employee of the city,” she told Samuelson.
Neff said she expected Samuelson, as a full-time mayor, to put in the time needed to handle the job, whenever it was needed.
“We asked you to average about 40 hours a week,” she said.
“You are on call all the time. We talk to you at night, we talk to you on Saturday, Sunday,” Neff said. “That’s your job, to be around and available.”
The dispute stems from ordinances passed by the council two years ago that made Samuelson a full-time mayor during his first year on the job. One ordinance, adopted in November 2008, increased Samuelson’s salary to $51,513, more than double the 2007 level.
It also required a 40-hour work week, and said the mayor would be “deemed an employee of the city.”
Attorneys inside and outside city hall, however, said that language violated state law.
“The mayor is an elected official. There just is no question about that,” said Paul McMurray, an attorney for the city.
Under the Separation of Powers Doctrine, the mayor runs the executive branch of government, and the council the legislative.
“One is not supposed to interfere, if you will, with the other,” McMurray said, adding that the council can’t limit the statutory authority of the mayor.
Making him a city employee, though, would do just that. McMurray suggested changing the existing ordinance on the mayor’s pay, or adopting a new one to resolve the issue.
City officials also noted the advice of Pat Mason, a senior legal consultant at the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, an organization that advises cities throughout the state on legislative matters.
“In my opinion it is beyond the authority of the city council to change the official status of the mayor from that of an [elected] officer to that of an employee by means of a local ordinance,” Mason wrote in a July 6 e-mail to the mayor.
Mason said a 1944 ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court made it clear that the mayor’s seat was a public office.
Councilman Bob Waterman said the idea to have a full-time mayor came from the council, and said the council was to blame for the improperly worded ordinance.
“We felt that, because of the tasks at hand, that this really was a full-time job, and that many things had perhaps fallen through the cracks because of the half-time salary mayor in the past,” Waterman said.
In the legal realm, he said, “single words always come back to haunt you.”
“It’s a mistake, I think we made, for not really picking up when this ordinance was presented to us — ‘deemed an employee’ — what that really meant in legal terms,” Waterman said.
Councilman Robert Gilman also noted the flaws in the November 2008 ordinance.
“We really weren’t thinking of the legal niceties of just what it meant to borrow the term ‘deemed employee,’” Gilman said.
“My sense is that, geez, we’re pedaling as fast as we can. There’s a lot on the plate here. And sometimes these things get missed.”
“The council can’t dictate hours,” Gilman added. “The council can’t dictate how the mayor will accomplish those things.
Council members said they didn’t intend to give Samuelson the same benefits package as other city employees, despite the language in the November 2008 ordinance. They said they intended to give him medical benefits, but not paid vacation time.
City officials also said the hubbub over Samuelson’s vacation time and pay had been overblown, and pushed back against the controversy.
“The little rumor mill that’s out there has this portrayed as some sort of secret subterfuge,” Councilman Russell Sparkman said. “That’s not the case at all. We have discussed this widely and openly about how to compensate the mayor.”
“It was all done, all of it, with the best intent,” Sparkman said. “That’s what’s really very frustrating about the whole thing, to find ourselves having this discussion.”
“Part of this is that we operate in an environment where, for reasons that we could all list, people have suspicions about anything that has the name ‘government’ attached to it,” Gilman added.
Those serving at the local level feel it most, he said.
“We’re the easiest to reach, so we get the full blast of all that angst. Even when it’s not particularly appropriate,” Gilman said.
The council then created a committee to look at possible fixes. Sparkman volunteered to serve on the group, and enlisted new Councilwoman Fran Abel to help.
“Hopefully, this isn’t going to be that complicated,” Gilman said.
“Hopefully, this will be the end of it,” Neff said.