What happens when voters set salaries of their elected leaders?

Next month, voters in Havre de Grace get to make a choice no other voters in Maryland are allowed. They’ll decide whether the mayor and city council deserve substantial salary increases. It’s a first-ever and fascinating exercise in democracy spearheaded by a Harford County middle school history teacher who also happens to be the city’s mayor. The question is, will voters make an informed choice or a reflexive one?

That the wage increase is on the May 8 ballot at all is something of an oddity. No other Maryland municipality puts decisions concerning the pay of elected officials on the ballot box. Not one. Oh, there have been times when pay increases end up on the ballot — when they are petitioned to referendum by opponents — but not as a requirement for a pay increase to go through. But that changed last year when the six-member Havre de Grace City Council, at the urging of Mayor William T. Martin, changed the city charter to require that pay increases be approved by voters.

Why have voters decide? Perhaps because it might be the only way to get a pay increase approved. Since 2000, the salaries of the mayor and council have been locked at $7,800 and $5,200, respectively. Twice the city council has been presented with proposals to raise them and twice they’ve lost on 3-3 ties. Mayor Martin explains the results rather simply: Havre de Grace holds municipal elections each year — for three council members this year and the other three and the mayor next year; all hold two-year terms. In each case, the three council members running for re-election voted against it for fear that voters would punish them for their actions.

The salary proposals sent to the ballot by the city council on Monday would be $18,200 for the mayor and $7,800 for the council, a pay increase of more than 100 percent for the former and 50 percent for the latter. Strictly on a percentage basis, that’s a lot to expect voters to swallow. And if they are upset, what’s to keep them from voting down the incumbent council members while they are voting against the wage increase? The answer: Nothing at all.

Yet, instead of looking for a backdoor way of getting the salaries approved — an independent commission, for example, or other third-party mechanism — the elected officials of Havre de Grace have essentially doubled down on transparency. Here’s what we did, they are telling voters, give us your guidance on the subject. Surely, there’s something commendable about such an approach to an especially controversial aspect of public policy.

There’s also a pretty good argument for raising the salaries. A Maryland Municipal League survey of all the various mayors, councils and commissions across the state found towns often paid their elected officials more (the mayor of Chesapeake Beach, for example, is paid $18,000 by a town of 5,753 while members of the La Plata Town Council draw $10,000 salaries in a town of 8,753). The population of Havre de Grace is approaching 14,000, and Mayor Martin says an $18,200 salary amounts to $50 a day given that he’s involved in city business every day of the week.

You can find municipalities with lower salaries but largely ceremonial positions with most day-to-day management handled by a city or town manager. That’s the other element of next month’s vote in Havre de Grace that makes the whole thing so interesting — are local voters well enough informed to make a judgment about what the mayor and council should be paid? If the mayor of nearby Aberdeen, a community roughly the same size as Havre de Grace, gets paid $15,000 but the post is less demanding, is it appropriate to pay Mayor Martin $3,200 more?

Here’s what we would recommend: Pay them. Havre de Grace has a $16 million annual operating budget that includes, among other things, a 36-officer police force. Nobody is getting rich serving in town government, but those who hold the jobs ought not become impoverished by it either. If it’s any help, they might look over at Baltimore where the mayor is paid, according to the 2016 survey, $171,000 annually and the City Council president $113,000. Maybe it’s time Charm City started setting salaries more like Havre de Grace.

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