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Editorial: Political inflation in Harford County government

EDITORAL FROM THE AEGIS

August 24, 2012

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On Wednesday, we published a story by our county government reporter, Bryna Zumer, about how the salary of Harford County Council Administrator Pamela Meister has increased by $21,000, or 22 percent, since she was hired a year ago at $95,000 a year, which was almost $23,000 more than the last administrator was making. For those doing the math at home, that means the salary of the position of council administrator has increased 46.3 percent in 12 months.

The 22 percent raise, which took effect in June, occurred amid a four-year period when salaries for Harford County government employees, with a few exceptions (more about that later), have been frozen at the same level as 2009. Actually, they received what amounted to a 2 percent pay cut for that year, when everyone was furloughed for five days to save money.

So, the obvious question is: What made this position suddenly so important to justify that hefty increase in compensation?

Council President Billy Boniface said the decision to raise the administrator's salary from $95,000 to $116,000 was based largely on the belief that the administrator is supervising more employees and "the position was more in line with director of administrator or the chief of staff."

The first part of that comparison is flawed, at best. For the record, Mary Chance, the director of administration, who supervises the executive branch's departments and - by extension some 1,200 employees - is paid $134,543 a year. Harford County Executive David Craig's salary is $102,111. The council administrator is being paid more than a majority of the heads of other county departments that are much larger in terms of scope, budget and responsibility.

Furthermore, using the chief of staff as an example is equally flawed for a somewhat different reason. Chief of Staff Aaron Tomarchio makes $110,000 a year. He's one of the few employees whose salary increased in the past four years - by about $5,000, ostensibly because he took on more responsibility. And it's true that he supervises one-sixth the employees Meister does.

But, we have long questioned the need for the position of chief of staff and those of his (now) two deputies, none of which existed before the current council and county executive first took office in 2006. Boniface has supported having all three posts and had a direct hand in seeing that one of the deputy's jobs - for agriculture and held by C. John Sullivan III - was created in the first place. The second deputy's job, created in the last year, is held by Ben Lloyd, who managed Boniface's first campaign in 2006. Obviously, the jobs held by the chief of staff, who was Craig's legislative aide in Annapolis before being hired by the county, and the two deputies, who are paid $81,799 and $82,000, respectively, are fine examples of good old fashioned political patronage. The council administrator job, on the other hand, is at least sanctioned in a county charter that received direct approval of county voters.

So, let's just say the council president's justification for the increases in the council administrator's salary needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, Meister supervises more employees than she did a year ago, but largely because Boniface and the other council members agreed to shuffle around some staff, get rid of others and also bring in personal aides for each council member. The number of employees in the council office has grown as a result but only with the council's blessing.

Let's also be clear we aren't knocking Meister's performance. She may be eminently qualified and entirely competent and she deserves to be fairly compensated, as would anyone. What we do question, however, is how her position grew so much in importance and responsibility in one year that it warranted a 46 percent increase in salary. And, what will the taxpayers receive in return? A more efficient county council, whose members respond more quickly to the needs of their constituents? Better overall governance of the county? Some other reward we have yet to understand?

Here's one other thing we believe has happened. Our county has taken yet another giant step down the road of having a full-time county legislature populated by career politicians. The original concept, espoused in the county's 40-year-old charter, was there would be citizen council members, who were paid a nominal part-time salary, because they put their service to their fellow county residents above any personal gain or remuneration. Seems like this idea has become lost somewhere inside the collective brain of the current council.