EDITORIAL | Mayor’s salary not to be taken lightly

Langley’s 2014 budget will be decided by the city council Monday.

For all intents and purposes, it appears to be a fine financial plan for the coming year, but there is at least one matter that deserves additional consideration — Mayor Fred McCarthy’s salary.

The proposed change is to increase the mayor’s pay from the $31,200 outlined in the 2013 budget to the $53,000 specified by city ordinance. It’s something of a housekeeping measure, but a decision that should not be taken lightly. The concern is not whether McCarthy is qualified to earn so much, it’s about who is not.

The job of mayor in small communities has long been filled by average people: business owners, farmers, even barbers. The position was designated part-time but the hours were long and the pay was atrocious. People who filled this role didn’t mind because it was public service, a way to give back to their communities.

The caveat of this romantic vision of self-sacrifice is that running a city is a complex job, even more so today with ever-increasing regulations and standards. To accomplish its goals municipalities have relied on experienced administrators — professionals armed with the know-how to turn elected vision into hired reality.

Of course this costs money, lots of it. What’s changed in recent years, however, is a blending of the two positions; it started, at least on Whidbey Island, in Coupeville with town Mayor Nancy Conard. A former school district budget manager, she was elected mayor and quickly found herself doing two jobs. She asked for a raise, arguing that her increased salary — about $66,000 today — was a bargain for town taxpayers, as competent administrators make over $100,000.

Former Langley mayor Paul Samuelson liked the idea and pursued a similar arrangement, and the issue got lots of press and lots of scrutiny. The next person to fill his shoes, Larry Kwarsick, was extremely qualified as a lifelong bureaucrat and government official. He felt the job should remain part-time and lowered the pay to the $31,200 budgeted for 2013, though his career in politics ended with the clang of a jail cell.

Now we have a new mayor who wants to revert back to the full-time salary that preceded Kwarsick. Like his predecessor, he is extremely qualified and the city is lucky to have such experience at the helm. But one should wonder, at what cost? It’s not the extra $22,000 — indeed, such arrangements have proved a financial bargain.

No, the real price tag is the precedent being set for future mayors. Will they also need to have years and years of government service under their belts? Will the average person who just wants to serve their neighbors be qualified to earn $53,000?

This new model for small-town mayors may indeed be the future, and a good one, but the city council would do well to meditate on the long-range ramifications of such a change.

Again, it’s not about whether McCarthy deserves the money, it’s about who does not.

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