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Editorial: Council members who didn't know about administrator's big salary should have

Budgets and BudgetingExecutive BranchLocal Government

Being outraged that the salary for the position of Harford County Council Administrator went from about $72,687 a year before to the retirement of the last person to hold the job to $116,000 in less than a year since the current council administrator took office is a natural.

Plenty of people in county government jobs make $46,000 a year or less, and awarding a raise totaling that amount to a person who has been on the job for less than a year is something every taxpayer in Harford County should be concerned about.

As Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes put it: "It's a slap in the face to all local government employees. I understand that that is upsetting to taxpaying residents. I was floored when I saw the amount of the salary."

Other members of the Harford County Council expressed similar outrage at the massive salary bestowed upon Council Administrator Pam Meister after such a short tenure, and after having replaced someone who was making substantially less after several years in the same position.

The outrage expressed by the members of the county council who say they were unaware of the magnitude of the salary being paid to their administrator, however, rings hollow. The reason it rings hollow is because there are only two things that could be going on here: either it's true that not all seven members of the county council were aware of what they were paying their administrator, or they all knew about it, and the rather roundabout way in which it was granted, and now some are claiming they didn't know. In this case, they are being disingenuous if they knew and are feigning ignorance, or they were truly ignorant about a subject on which they should have been well-versed.

The trend on the county council in recent years has been one of failing to pay careful attention to the details of running the county government. While there have been a few disputes between the council and the executive branch over specific issues, the council, going back well before many of the current council members took office, has largely abdicated a careful review of spending line items. As a result, it has largely failed to act as a check on the executive branch.

In the instance of the county council administrator's hefty salary, however, the council appears to have abdicated on even bothering to act as a check on its own members. If the council members who claim ignorance are to be believed, and there's really no reason to doubt they weren't paying attention, the action to increase the salary was devised by a council committee consisting of three council members. They made a recommendation regarding a classification change for the council administrator and that recommendation was allowed by the council as a whole to go into effect, unchallenged and apparently unchecked.

While there's a measure of nobility to be found in Council President Billy Boniface taking the blame for some council members being left in the dark, the reality is all seven members of the council are responsible for paying careful attention to how the county's tax revenues are spent. In the instance of the county council budget — which includes the council administrator — there is no executive branch oversight, so it is incumbent on the individual council members to be especially vigilant.

Of course, it didn't help that one of the more imposing members of the personnel committee, Councilman Dick Slutzky, doesn't seem to understand that the salaries of public officials are obliged to be available for review by all members of the public, as he was calling the increase a private personnel matter as recently as two weeks ago when asked about it by reporters.

Slutzky's imperial attitude about the taxpayer-funded salaries of members of his retinue aside, it remains the responsibility of all the council members to carefully review the council, as well as the substantially larger county government budget as proposed by the executive branch.

If this lackluster performance with regard to the attention paid to a relatively small, but important, part of the county council budget is any indication, there's probably a lot of money allocated in the county budget that is a complete mystery to members of the county council.

This is absolutely unacceptable, given that a primary council function is to act as a fiscal check on the county budget proposed each year by the county executive.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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