Auburn needs to iron out details of mayor’s compensation

The idea seems simple enough — to take all the the provisions that relate to the Auburn mayor’s salary and compensation that are now scattered throughout the city code and bring them altogether into one section.

According to Candis Martinson, director of human resources and risk management for the city of Auburn, this consolidation would not change any language at all.

But the light that proposed Ordinance 4889 has shined on the Auburn mayor’s salary and rules that are already on the books relating to the mayor’s vacation and sick leave prompted five of the seven council members to vote Dec. 19 to table further consideration of the measure to the council study session of Jan. 9.

All of that at a meeting when the proposed ordinance had already been removed from that night’s agenda.

Yet of particular concern on Dec. 19 to Councilmember Kate Baldwin was language that entitles Auburn’s mayor to accrue the vacation benefits available to other city employees as set forth in city policy, “except that due to the demands and responsibilities of the position, the mayor’s vacation leave accrual shall be unlimited, and the mayor shall be authorized to receive payment for any unused accrued sick leave upon leaving office.”

When Martinson first presented the proposed ordinance at the Dec. 15 study session, Mayor Nancy Backus noted that the ordinance would not change any wording, as the language had been on the books for 13 years, dating to the administration of former Mayor Pete Lewis.

Backus also explained the distinction between the position of the mayor and the various city department heads.

“It is most difficult to take a vacation when you are in this role,” Backus said. “Most of the directors are allowed the time to take vacation, whether it is a day or two at a time, or a week or two at a time. And frankly, (the mayor’s) role does not allow for any time off. It is a 24-7 job, answering phone calls and emails and dealing with situations on a 24-7 basis. And that’s why this was put into the city code under the prior mayor.”

As of that Dec. 15 study session, Martinson said, Mayor Backus had accrued 969 hours of vacation and 811 hours of sick leave. The mayor, as an elected official, Martinson explained, doesn’t fall under the same vacation policy that applies to city department heads, whose vacation accrual is capped at 192 hours per year.

The mayor’s salary itself is set by the city’s Independent Salary Commission, an advisory board for which city residents may apply for membership. The mayor makes recommendations and the city council approves new members, as with any other board or commission. The mayor’s current total salary is about $173,000 per year, with a base pay of about $149,853.

Auburn resident Kevin Piper described his concerns at the regular meeting on Dec. 19.

“I was more alarmed to learn that there was no cap on the (vacation accrual) for the mayor, and according to my math, the city of Auburn would have to cut a check for about $150,000 if the mayor were to depart just today,” Piper said. “At this rate, by the end of the [two-year budget] term, it would be somewhere near $200,000. I understand the city staff’s PTO is capped. I’m not sure why the mayor would be different from that.

“I respect the mayor’s response … about the job being 24-7, and that time off is impossible,” Piper continued. “I get that, I’ve run several companies. But even the President of the United States gets time off. You’re surrounded by capable city managers, a great police chief and a great deputy chief. I think all the resources are there. They provide you with a laptop and cell phone that I think could make this possible. The compensation should follow under similar guidelines to other city officials, and not a special board that’s appointed by the mayor. If the mayor can’t take time off, then I have to believe something is broken. It just doesn’t make sense. I believe it is the city council’s duty to fix this.”

After Piper spoke, Baldwin said:

“As I looked at the language in the motion when it was originally presented, it looked very much to be a bit more administrative and consolidating code. But in spending time with it, what I recognized was that if we are forecasting potential financial liabilities, the unlimited clause is concerning.

“While we’ve been very fortunate to have a trusted steward in Mayor Backus,” Baldwin continued, “what I’d like for council to do is to make sure we have due diligence for future unknown mayors that may be coming down the road … and so as part of that, I would like to make sure that …we establish a fair and appropriate cap in that space, and that … there is appropriate oversight going forward.”