Aberdeen mayor and city council raises not justified [editorial]

What's the fair going rate to pay someone who has been elected to public office?

It's an open question, and one that needs to be asked often and, once settled for one generation, asked anew again for the next generation. These days it's being asked in Aberdeen, thanks to a proposal from the city's elected officials to increase the rates of pay for the offices they hold.

Famously, Ulysses S. Grant, after serving as president in the wake of his decisive role in helping preserve the Union in the Civil War, was far from set for life in his retirement. Struggling against cancer, but encouraged by Mark Twain, he penned his memoirs and secured a publishing deal to ensure those in his family he left behind wouldn't be left wanting.

In the early days of the republic, running for public office to take the responsibilities of government could more easily have been likened to volunteering to cut the grass or take out the garbage. Sure, there's always a level of prestige that goes with holding office, but many of the tasks associated with government aren't popular. Collecting taxes to pay for road repairs isn't glorious work.

A balance needs to be struck.

Public servants need to be fairly compensated, but that means different things for different offices in different places. People who hold elected office that requires full-time attention need to be paid a full-time salary that enables them to resist the temptation of making deals that are personally beneficial. Leaving the family of a hero of the Civil War in financial straights isn't in the public interest if for no other reason than such tales let good people in later generations know that their good deeds will not go unpunished.

Still, not everyone in public office is obliged to give so much time to public service. For better or worse, it's clear the offices of president, U.S. representative and U.S. senator require full-time attention in their modern incarnations. Congress had largely ceased to be a citizen legislature well before the 1970s when the Senate came to be known as the millionaires club. These days, the moniker could probably be applied to the House as well.

Governors are paid a substantial amount, and in Maryland, members of the General Assembly are paid what is referred to as a part-time salary with benefits, even as it would be the envy of many a full-time worker. The Maryland legislature may have more of a claim on being a citizen legislature than its federal counterpart, but the compensation package is pretty nice. At the county level, the pay rates for executives, council members and commissioners vary across Maryland, as well as from office to office.

More locally – sometimes at the county commissioner level, sometimes at the small town level – being elected to government office becomes more akin to being elected to the local homeowners association board of directors than being elected to Congress.

Possibly, the City of Aberdeen is at a break point where a transition will need to be made from elected officials receiving part-time pay bordering on volunteerism to being compensated as public employees.

The mayor and council are, after all, responsible for a multimillion dollar government with well in excess of 100 employees.

Then again, the city pays a full-time management staff, including a city manager and department heads, for the purposes of ensuring the boilerplate business of government like police patrols, water and sewer service and street repairs are taken care of day in and day out. Those in elected office are obliged not so much to manage the work, but to take action if those managing the work aren't up to the task.

It's not like the proposal being considered in Aberdeen would turn the jobs of mayor and council into princely plums. Under what's proposed, the mayor's salary would increase from $10,000 a year to $24,000 and the four council members' salaries would go from $7,500 to $12,000.

As percentages, the totals are frightening: the mayor's pay would go up by 140 percent, and council members would see raises of 60 percent.

A key issue in this discussion, however, isn't so much the staggering percentage increases, but addressing the question of whether Aberdeen wants full-time elected officials or a part-time citizen government motivated more by civic pride than pay.

If Aberdeen wants a full-time mayor and council – something that's probably ill-advised for a city of Aberdeen's size – the salaries should be increased a lot more than what's proposed. If the idea is to compensate people for the aggravation of holding positions of public responsibility – and criticism – the stipend level of the current pay scale is just what's called for.

Realistically speaking, however, unless the city's citizens continue applying pressure on the issue, those in office can probably be depended on to give themselves raises. Such is human nature.

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