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Council creates new ordinance for salary of Langley mayor

LANGLEY — The Langley City Council moved quickly to repeal two ordinances Monday that led to a dispute over the pay for Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson, and council members unanimously approved a new ordinance setting the pay scale and benefits for the mayor.

The new ordinance, prompted by uncertainty over whether Samuelson should receive vacation pay and whether he should get credit for working on city business while on multiple trips to California last year, includes a number of new benefits not specifically listed in the earlier ordinances approved by the council.

The dispute over the mayor’s pay became public less than three weeks ago, and has been an uncomfortable topic at city hall since.

Controversy arose after city officials learned that Langley Finance Director Debbie Mahler had sent a letter to Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, asking him to investigate possible “improper actions” by Samuelson. Mahler said the mayor 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 outside the state.

On the advice of the city’s legal team, council members said they would rewrite the ordinances that deemed the mayor an employee of the city, and make it clear he was not eligible for vacation pay. Councilman Russell Sparkman and Councilwoman Fran Abel volunteered to serve on a committee to help create the new pay ordinance, and the pair met for about 20 minutes on Friday to review a draft of the ordinance.

During a work session before the Monday council meeting, Samuelson told the council that city officials contacted the state auditor’s office and Langley was told the mayor did not need to document his work hours.

“The evaluation of the mayor’s work is based on performance, not time worked, with the city council determining whether the results are worth the compensation,” Samuelson said, reading a memo written by a staff member that recounted the conversation with the state auditor’s office.

“The mayor may receive medical and retirement benefits and not receive other benefits such as sick leave, vacation leave, etc. Given this, the requirement for having a timesheet is nil,” Samuelson said.

Samuelson also shared an e-mail from Assistant State Auditor Tiffany Lindsay, in which Lindsay said the city could get an opinion on the mayor’s employee status and its impact on vacation pay, timekeeping and other issues by calling the state’s Citizen’s Hotline with a request that the issue be reviewed. Lindsay also said the city could ask to have an audit done by the state every year, instead of the two-year cycle for review that Langley currently uses.

With the new ordinance on the mayor’s pay before the council, the mayor said the city’s work to resolve the issue appeared near an end.

“I feel like this pretty much completes this process,” Samuelson said.

“I don’t feel like it’s prudent to go back to the annual audit,” he added.

Council members appeared unwilling to take on the additional costs that would be involved with a yearly audit.

“Yes, let’s incur more debt,” Councilwoman Rene Neff said sarcastically.

The new pay ordinance, which is expected to get final approval from the council on Aug. 16, maintains the same pay level for Samuelson as the earlier pay ordinance. As Langley’s first mayor who is paid a full-time salary, he earns $53,532 a year, plus benefits.

The new ordinance provides a more specific detailing of Samuelson’s benefits package, earlier estimated to total between $17,000 to $18,000.

Samuelson will now get health, dental and medical benefits (including co-payment and incentive programs); a city vehicle or reimbursement for using his private vehicle on city business; reimbursement of expenses; and also the opportunity to be covered by the Washington State Public Employment Retirement System.

If Samuelson joins the state retirement system, the city will be required to make payments toward the mayor’s pension, and he would be the first elected official in the city’s history to get retirement pay.

The new ordinance also continues to make clear that the salary and benefits package is a special deal for Samuelson. The pay and benefits will revert to the previous level of pay for the mayor — $1,750 a month — at the end of Samuelson’s term.

During the regular council session, much of the evening’s discussion centered on the fact that specific provisions of the ordinance apply only to Samuelson, and that the job description reverts back to part-time status when he leaves office.

The mayor’s position became full-time at the urging of Samuelson, early in his term.

“Nobody ever asked me to work this job full-time,” Samuelson said. “I felt the responsibility belonged to the mayor.”

Neff and Sparkman both said the ordinance allows the city the flexibility to accommodate either a full-time or part-time mayor, whichever the incoming mayor and the council would prefer.

But Langley resident Kathleen Waters predicted that voters will be confused about whether they’re getting a full-time or a part-time mayor.

“When I vote for somebody, I expect them to be a full-time mayor,” Waters said.

Another resident, former city employee Mary Jo McArdle, agreed.

“This just seems like a really ineffective way to run a city government,” she said. “The city should decide on what kind of government it wants.”

“It’s a discussion that needs to be considered before the next election,” McArdle added. “The way it is now, who would want to run?”

Waters said the city might consider changing its charter to a city manager-city council form of government. Under such a system, the mayor is selected from among the council members, and the city is run by a manager hired by the council.

“I’m just trying to broaden the conversation down the road,” Waters said.

“It’s a worthy topic of conversation,” Councilman Robert Gilman agreed.

Record writer Roy Jacobson contributed to this report.

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