The issue of how much Spokane’s top elected official should be paid was revived Monday by Mayor David Condon, who challenged the City Council to “look to solutions rather than just the problem.”
Condon called on the City Council to put a measure on the “next available ballot” asking voters to approve a plan to have the city’s Salary Review Commission set the mayor’s pay. The commission currently determines compensation for City Council members and Municipal Court judges.
“It really comes back to a city government that is affordable for our citizens and really making sure that we put a plan forward,” Condon said. “We heard a lot of consternation last year about what the problems were, but I have yet to see a plan come out of the City Council.”
When Condon released his 2015 budget proposal last fall, it increased his annual pay by about $7,000, to nearly $180,000. At the time, the mayor defended the raise as a function of city law, which states that the “minimum annual salary of the mayor shall be an amount equal to the salary of the highest paid city employee.” Voters approved this wording in the charter in 1999, when they adopted the strong mayor form of government, and again in 2011, when the City Council asked voters to clarify portions of the city charter.
The proposed raise, as well as pay bumps for a majority of Condon’s Cabinet, was described as out of line with “the community’s values” by City Council President Ben Stuckart, who called Condon’s raise “utterly ridiculous.”
By the time the budget was approved in November, Condon had said he wouldn’t take the raise, but he demanded a long-term solution on the matter from the City Council. Pay raises for Condon’s Cabinet were approved by the council, after Stuckart asked for and was shown annual performance reviews for the Cabinet members.
Councilman Mike Fagan, the mayor’s sole ally on the council on this issue, led three sparsely-attended public discussions about mayoral compensation in November. The talks led Fagan to endorse Condon’s idea to have the salary commission set the mayor’s wage, which would require a vote of the people to change the city charter. Fagan pushed to have the measure on the February or April ballots but was rebuffed by fellow council members who did not want to confuse the issues on those ballots – school bonds in February and Spokane Transit Authority’s request for a major expansion this month.
“At the time the stuff hit the fan on this, it was a pretty hot-button issue,” Fagan said. “I’m glad the time has come.”
Fagan said if the charter amendment is approved by voters, the council will have to reform the commission, the members of which are currently appointed by the mayor. Both Condon and Fagan said the city’s police ombudsman commission provided a good blueprint for how the salary commission should be composed. The ombudsman commission has two people appointed by the City Council and two by the mayor. These four members choose the fifth and final member.
Stuckart said the City Council has planned to discuss the salary measure on April 20 and that it will likely be on the August ballot.
“I’ve heard no concerns from anybody,” he said. “I’m totally fine with having it on the August ballot. … I don’t have a preference. I’m just going by what Councilman Fagan suggests and what the mayor suggests.”
The goal of the measure is to take the politics out of the mayor’s wage, but if it appears on the primary ballot in August, it will be considered alongside Condon and Stuckart, who are running for re-election this year. Both men are currently unopposed in their campaigns. Fagan, who is also up for re-election, said he has not yet made a decision on running again.
The plan to have the salary commission determine the mayor’s pay is part of a three-pronged “government affordability plan” from Condon.
His plan includes lobbying the Legislature to change state law to allow factors such as household income and housing costs to be considered during binding arbitration for police and fire unions. Condon said no progress has been made with the Legislature.
Condon also wants a third-party review of all wages paid by the city, which would serve as a “base document as we set up future contracts with our eight labor unions,” he said.
At a news conference Monday, Condon suggested the process to set the mayor’s pay would be “a difficult one.” Full-time mayors in similar-size cities are paid between $165,000 and $180,000, he said, noting there were no good comparisons for Spokane.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray oversees a much larger city than Condon but earns more than $180,000, making him the highest-paid mayor in the state. The mayor of Everett, which has half the population of Spokane, earns less than $160,000.
The daily operations of Tacoma, which has a similar population to Spokane, are not overseen by a mayor but by an appointed city manager, T. C. Broadnax, who is paid more than $235,000 and is the highest-paid city manager in the state. The city of Vancouver has a smaller population than Spokane and is also run by a city manager, Eric Holmes, who earns nearly $200,000 a year. Spokane Valley’s city manager, Mike Jackson, is paid about $158,000 annually while Spokane County’s part-time chief executive officer, Marshall Farnell, is paid about $125,000.
“You see some pretty substantial pay ranges,” Condon said. “In the end, it’s going to be an amount the citizens feel is fair.”