Council settles mayor’s salary issues as part of legal settlement

On June 5, the Auburn City Council adopted ordinances that settled the issue of Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus’s salary and benefits as well as those of future city mayors.

Before the vote, Auburn City Councilmember Kate Baldwin read a “joint statement” expressing agreement between the council and Backus over the final versions of the ordinances.

What the city did not disclose was that the final form the ordinances took was not the result of ordinary council business, but a legal settlement between Backus and the Auburn City Council that had been the subject of a closed-door executive session earlier that evening.

According to the settlement, an electronic copy of which the Auburn Reporter later obtained through a public records request, Backus had claimed that in its pursuit of the issue, the legislation was motivated by her gender, apparently referring to the fact that no previous councils had subjected former mayors Chuck Booth and Pete Lewis to the same treatment.

The settlement was pointed in its prohibitions against any council member discussing the matter outside of the executive session.

The mayor’s salary and benefits had been the subject of council discussions since November 2022, and during the spring, the subject was the sole focus of a special committee, which Baldwin chaired.

When the council meeting opened at 7 p.m. that Monday, Backus announced that city council was to adjourn to a closed-door executive session that would center on “pending litigation,” with “action to follow.” The mayor herself did not take part in the executive session.

The “joint statement” Baldwin read before the vote, which had been written the day before and which Backus and Deputy Mayor James Jeyaraj signed, made no reference to litigation, only to the two ordinances, leaving listeners to speculate what “pending litigation” had been contemplated, by whom and how it related to the ordinances.

Queries to the mayor’s office by the Auburn Reporter asking how the pending litigation related to the ordinaces were received with the answer that the Reporter should reread the joint statement, and that the newspaper was not entitled to know what had been discussed in the executive session.

Summary of what the settlement accomplishes

From now on, the city’s Independent Salary Commission’s single purpose will be to set the salaries of the mayor and city council.

Employment benefits like sick leave, vacation or management leave will now be spelled out by city ordinance.

A routine reordering of certain sections of the city code late last year brought to council’s attention the amount of uncompensated vacation and sick leave the mayor had accrued during her terms, a sum that would be due to her under the-then current rules, should she have left the position that day.

In reaction, the council formed the one-time, three-member committee that reviewed the historical practices of the Independent Salary Commission. Councilmember Kate Baldwin, who chaired the committee, was careful to note that these changes in no way reflect disapproval of present Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus.

Baldwin added that council members and Mayor Backus agreed before the June 5 vote that the legislation “accomplishes our shared goals.”

As for the commission, committee members determined that city code had used the ambiguous term “compensation,” which could be interpreted to include not only the mayor’s salary, but those other benefits. The committee also determined the Independent Salary Commission had in fact not been voting on vacation leave, sick leave, or management leave benefits.

Here is what else the changes accomplish:

Modify the accrual rates for vacation and sick leave going forward to set them at a reasonable rate for the present mayor and for future mayors, based on longevity of service as mayor;

Provide Backus with “a pad of unused vacation and sick leave,” which she will accrue between now and the end of her current term;

Compensate Backus for the leave she has accrued to date, payable at the end of her term but at her current rate of pay.

Moving forward, it sets Backus’s accrual rate at seven hours per pay period up to a cap of 364 hours, consistent with the average of the rate afforded the city directors she supervises; and

Allow Backus to cash out 100 percent of her sick leave, accrued between today and the end of her term.

According to the city’s Human Resources Department, the projected benefit for Auburn’s mayor at the end of her current term, based on existing conditions, would be as follows: Vacation, $151,792.21; sick leave, $106,546.62; for a total cash-out value of $258,338.83.