January 20, 2012 in City

Verner’s defense of pay request cruelest cut

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Any idea what an “average middle-class family’s income in the city of Spokane” is?

If you guessed $100,000, you’re way, way off.

And if you were the mayor for four years and guessed $100,000, you’re way more than way off.

I was ready to be done with the whole Mary Verner back-pay thing. It was politically thumb-fingered in the extreme, but the vilification she endured seemed more than sufficient. The matter had been hashed out. Verner asked for back pay and a bigger pension after making hay out of her decision to take a lower salary, and she was turned down.

Then Verner started talking. Explaining. Defending. Deflecting. She went on TV to “set the record straight.” She posted a long “thank you” note on her Facebook page, in which she defended, denied and blamed. She was, she said, the victim of a “crafty political trap.” A lot of people were responsible for this screw-up. None of them was she.

Her explanations – including the very slippery notion that when she asked for back pay, she didn’t really ask for back pay, she was just asking whether she could ask for back pay, which she didn’t necessarily want, and which she only did because someone else, a trusted adviser, told her to do it – had all the strategic impact of a person who won’t stop flailing, even though the quicksand has reached her neck.

Most astonishing was this assertion, which she made to an interviewer at KHQ: “My take-home pay after deductions put me right about an average middle-class family’s income in the city of Spokane.”

The median family income – the middle of the middle – in the city of Spokane during Verner’s term was about $40,000. The mayor’s annual salary was $170,000 but Verner voluntarily capped her pay at $100,000 a year, which will cost her in retirement benefits.

She tries to suggest that her take-home pay of $68,000 is the number to pay attention to. But of course, that $40,000 family has deductions and pays taxes, too.

Verner’s defense deserves a fuller airing. Here are some passages from her TV interview:

“I was not after the money. Working for this community has always been about the community,” she said. “When I came onto City Council I wasn’t even aware that we got paid. Until I received my first paycheck. And then as the mayor, I felt that my salary that I actually took was more than adequate, and that I needed to lead by example and I needed to make sure we could balance the budget. … I’m used to that. In fact, I’m used to making a lot less. I don’t come from a wealthy family. I come from a hardworking family. I’m a single mom.”

Once she lost re-election, she realized that her retirement benefits would be affected by her salary decision. Maintaining health care coverage for her family was going to eat almost all of that up. She inquired whether she might do something about it.

“So I was told to put these letters in,” she said. “In fact, I was advised on the specific language for the letters to submit to do the evaluation to see if it was possible. I didn’t necessarily want the money. I wanted the evaluation to see if it was possible to ask for the money. Again, it was not about the money. … I was told the specific language I needed to submit in order for the city to evaluate whether or not I could increase my retirement benefit. That’s what I submitted. I really don’t want any more money from the city’s coffers. I was well paid for the job that I did.”

Here’s the language she was advised to use and which she did, in fact, use while she was seeking an evaluation that was not about the money that she didn’t necessarily want: “By this letter, I request that the City pay me the full salary mandated by the charter not previously received by me for the last two years during my term as Mayor.”

Bad advice. The plague of every hero in history: Cassius whispers to Brutus, Gollum tempts Frodo. Verner was not always so susceptible to bad advice. Back when she was deciding to take that lower salary, she said, “The attorneys had told me I could not decline my salary. My response to that was I’m going to anyway, because the city needs the money for the budget. The amount that I declined could keep a couple of other people working. So that’s what I chose to do.”

Finally, Verner would like us to understand that it’s not a legitimate question for the public or the media to ask, whether she asks for back pay or an increased retirement benefit. It was only our business when she took less.

“I really feel the taxpayers deserve for me to focus on getting my work done. I did not feel it was appropriate for me to take a lot of perks of the job. So I did not have an automobile allowance. I paid for my own cellphone bills. I paid for my own meals when I attended numerous and many charitable dinners. … I stayed with friends when I traveled. …

“So it left me in kind of a lurch as my job came to an end because I used a lot of my after-tax personal income to pay for these otherwise what would be considered business expenses. I don’t hold a grudge about that. I’m just wondering why certain people are holding a grudge against me and making such a to-do about an inquiry that I made that really was a human resources, personnel and legal matter for the city.”

You did this thing, Mayor. It wasn’t done to you. And the next time you want to compare yourself to an average middle-class Spokane family, ask for a bigger pay cut first.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


There are 13 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email