Residents express concern about Auburn mayor’s paid time off

Seven Auburn residents have asked the Auburn City Council to change policies that determine the Auburn mayor’s salary and compensation.

Specifically, policies that allow the city’s elected mayor to accrue unlimited sick leave and vacation time and then cash it out upon leaving office.

Tanya Terrell Jones, Aaron Lowry, Chrystal Lowry, Lee Childress, Liz Edwards, Robert Baker and Diana Baker noted in their Jan. 6 letter that directors of city departments are capped at 192 hours every year.

The signers have asked the council to demand that Mayor Nancy Backus take the 969 hours of vacation and 811 hours she had accrued as of Dec. 19 and cut it to the maximum that follows city staff guidelines — so the city does not get stuck with a possible payout that could approach $200,000 should Backus choose to leave office when her present term ends.

Such a change would affect Backus and all future mayors. The seven have also asked council members to address the following policy changes:

Cap the mayor’s paid time off (PTO) so it aligns with the cap on the PTO’s of city directors;• Ensure that a mayor can no longer cash out his or her sick leave;

Set a policy that directs Auburn’s present and future mayors to use vacation time every year to ensure something like this does not happen again;

Excise the portion of the city’s administrative code that has allowed this to happen for the last 13 years since 2010; and

Eliminate the city’s Independent Salary Commission, which determines the mayor’s salary, at least as it is now configured.

“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,” Backus informed the council on Dec. 15. “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.”

Today the mayor recommends, based on a list of names she has received, who should serve on the mayor’s Independent Salary Commission. The mayor then submits a recommendation to the city council for approval or disapproval. The signers of the letter say they consider this to be a clear conflict of interest. Instead, the letters writers say, the commission should be comprised of Auburn residents who are appointed by an outside entity with no interest or stake in the city of Auburn.

According to Candis Martinson, the city’s director of human resources and risk management, because the mayor is an elected official, the mayor’s salary and compensation do not fall under the same vacation policy that applies to city department heads. The mayor’s current total salary is about $173,000 per year, with a base pay of about $149,853.

What brought this issue to the public’s attention was that during the routine process of updating the Auburn city code, two ordinances were brought forward to the Auburn City Council. The first concerns the removal of a section of code that is no longer permissible to employees under the provisions of the state’s Paid Sick Leave laws.

According to Dana Hinman, the city’s administrative director, the result of this revision would be to include in the policy only legally-provided employee benefits, delegating additional employee benefits and collective bargaining agreements.

That policy, written and adopted at the end of the administration of former Mayor Pete Lewis, allows a 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.”

The second ordinance, Ordinance 6889, proposes only to relocate previously existing language from one chapter of the code to another dedicated exclusively to the mayor’s position. This proposed city ordinance, then, would not change any language in the policy; all it would do is take all of the provisions that relate to the Auburn mayor’s salary and compensation that are now scattered throughout the city code and bring them all together into one section.

In this case, Hinman explained, there will no change to the benefits for the city’s mayor; it’s only a transfer of existing language from the personnel section to the section of the code that specifically addresses elected officials, in this case, the mayor.

”The language that is being transferred from the personnel section of the code to the mayor’s section of the code has been in [the code] since 1986, via Ordinance 4109, which allows the mayor to cash out vacation leave when they leave office. This ordinance was amended in 2013 via Ordinance 6486 to allow the mayor both vacation and sick leave cash out,” Hinman said.

Since 1986, Hinman noted, three mayors have received this benefit, as follows:

Bob Roegner: Served from Jan. 1, 1982, to Dec. 31, 1993. Final payout data not found. Vacation hours only per Ordinance 4109.

Charles Booth: Served from Jan. 1, 1994, to Dec. 31, 2001. Final payout was $ 53,677.29. Vacation hours only per Ordinance 4109.

Pete Lewis: Served Jan. 1, 2002, to Dec. 31, 2013, with 704 sick hours and 934.96 vacation hours as of Dec. 31, 2013. Final payout was $105,874.01 — vacation hours and sick hours per Ordinance 6486.

It appears the light shined on a seldom studied section of the code dealing with the Auburn mayor’s salary and paid time off, which prompted alarm, causing 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. That meeting in turn was canceled because the city was unable to broadcast the meeting. It has been rescheduled to Jan. 23.

Auburn resident Kevin Piper expressed his concerns at the beginning of the Dec. 19 regular meeting.

“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.”

Piper said he understood how difficult it can be for people at the top to take a vacation.

“But even the President of the United States gets time off,” Piper said. “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,” Piper said.

“We are pleased tat residents are engaged and are choosing to voice their concerns to their elected representatives. That is something we always encourage and hope to continue the dialogue,” Hinman said.