After criticism from Harford County Council members, a salary increase for the council administrator has been rescinded and will have a proper vote "in the near future," Council President Billy Boniface said Tuesday.
The 22 percent raise for Council Administrator Pam Meister was approved June 25, according to county records, to bump up her $95,000 annual salary to $116,000. Meister was hired 10 months earlier, in August 2011. The latest development puts her back at $95,000 a year.
Revelations about the pay increase, made public in an Aegis article published Aug. 22, touched off a storm of public criticism, several council members have acknowledged.
Three council members have since disavowed having any knowledge of the pay increase beforehand, and at least one said he demanded a vote of the full council be taken during the next council meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 4. Such a vote then appears unlikely, however.
Boniface confirmed that he instructed the county's human resources department to rescind the raise, pending future action by the full council.
Reaction from council members
County Councilman Chad Shrodes said he was "shocked" to read about the raise in The Aegis and he had no idea it had taken place.
"This needs to be brought to a vote," Shrodes said, adding he hopes that will happen at the council's first meeting in September.
He also said it appears the county charter requires the council to act as one body in all its functions and deliberations.
"I just don't think they acted on the proper authority," Shrodes said of the council's personnel committee, which consists of Boniface, Councilman Dick Slutzky and Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti.
Shrodes said the raise does not seem appropriate in light of county teachers and other employees not receiving any increase at all.
"I just think it was in bad taste," he said. "Even if you are the best person out there, the timing is wrong."
Shrodes questioned the entire rationale of the personnel committee.
"I just don't think it's right the personnel [committee] is making so many of these decisions," he said. "Usually you don't have to worry about this stuff. Maybe I trusted them too much that they were doing things the way they should be."
Shrodes noted the $21,000 raise is more than the entire salary of some people who work for the county, where salaries have been frozen for four years.
"It's a slap in the face to all local government employees," he added. "I understand that is upsetting to taxpaying residents. I was floored when I saw the amount of the salary."
Councilman Dion Guthrie called The Aegis Friday, saying he was demanding that a public voted be taken on the raise.
Like Shrodes, Guthrie said he was unaware of the raise, believing only that the council had voted earlier to change the administrator's job classification, which had the effect of raising the pay grade, and hence the salary ceiling for the job.
"This [the raise] was the work of the personnel committee, not the council," Guthrie said, adding that when he asked Slutzky for an explanation, "he told me it was a personnel matter" and wouldn't discuss it further.
Guthrie said he understood Boniface was going through a difficult time personally around the time the raise took effect; however, the entire council still should have voted on it beforehand.
Guthrie also said Councilman Joe Woods was not aware of the raise.
Boniface takes responsibility
Boniface said he feels the issue is the result of "a lot of misunderstanding," one he blames himself for.
He explained the council administrator presented her case to the personnel committee in June for the job reclassification and a salary increase.
"She brought up some good points and I said I would discuss the issue with my colleagues," Boniface said. "This wasn't something the personnel committee could take action on. It needed council support."
Less than a week later, on June 18, Boniface's son was killed in a pickup truck accident on the family's farm and, as a result, the council president didn't return to work until two weeks ago. During that period, the council held only one legislative session in July, which Boniface did not attend, and none in August, typically a summer recess period.
It was Boniface's understanding the council had taken action on the raise, based on his impression he had already spoken to each council member prior to his leave of absence.
"That wasn't the case," he said. "It was a huge misunderstanding on how it was handled and I take responsibility for that. I still should've conveyed to my colleagues that we haven't had that discussion yet."
Boniface said colleagues have since told him they understood the classification/pay grade change, but they didn't recognize it also included an actual pay raise. He said raising the salary without a public vote of the full council violates "clearly the language that is in the code."
He said he would speak to the human resources department and council attorney soon to begin straightening things out, so the council can start back at square one.
"I think this is something the council as a whole needs to have a discussion on and, if any action is taken, to do so we need to do it in [legislative] session," he said.
Boniface wasn't sure when any vote might take place, explaining Slutzky has been away and Lisanti will soon be going away for a period of time.
As soon as everyone is back from their summer vacations, he said, the council will hold a closed session to talk about the personnel issue and then hold a vote in open session, if warranted.
"The language is clear in the charter that it needs to be an action of the council as a whole," Boniface said about any action to change the administrator's salary.
Effective Tuesday, he added, Meister was returned to her previous salary and any money she has been paid above that level will be refunded to the county.
Boniface stressed that Meister personally had no role in what transpired and that the controversy "doesn't reflect on the council administrator."
"If anybody is at fault, they can blame me," he said. "I'm the boss."
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun