Friday, January 06, 2012

Check please!

A little history of the salary mess in Trenton
In August of 2003, the Palmer administration put ordinances on the city council docket increasing the salary ranges for the Mayor and department heads, the city clerk and increasing the city council pay.  It was a sneaky, distasteful move on a couple of counts.

First, earlier that year, the same administration had asked department heads to cut budgets by 10% or so because of the city’s financial condition. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to cut budgets and then turnaround and grant the king’s court raises, does it?

Second, the ordinances were late additions to the docket of the single council meeting held in August.  This meant the second reading/approval would come at the first meeting in September. Coming at the end of summer when people are away on vacation and right after the Labor Day holiday when so many families are readjusting to a more regulated fall schedule, the timing of the introduction of these ordinances was obviously designed to circumvent public scrutiny and outcry.

Didn’t work. Various watchdogs, activists, etc. got wind of the ordinance’s first reading and spoke against it.  At the second reading in September of that year, a decent crowd turned out and spoke against the raises during the public hearing that proceeded the vote on the ordinances.

It was testy. Then Council President Paul Pintella was about to have one citizen removed from chambers but the speaker left of his own volition.  Another resident brought a tube of KY Jelly to the podium and asked that council at least use a lubricant before “putting it to the citizens”.  

The ordinances passed.

Another interesting development was that the ordinances for the Mayor, department heads and city clerk denoted salary ranges with annual increases over a several year period.  While not specifically prohibited, state statue does not mention salary ranges. It simply states “salaries, wages or compensation”.

§ 40A:9-165. Salaries, wages or compensation of mayor or other chief executive; officers and employees; exceptions; referendum
The governing body of a municipality, by ordinance, unless otherwise provided by law, shall fix and determine the salaries, wages or compensation to be paid to the officers and employees of the municipality, including the members of the governing body and the mayor or other chief executive, who by law are entitled to salaries, wages, or compensation.
Salaries, wages or compensation fixed and determined by ordinance may, from time to time, be increased, decreased or altered by ordinance. No such ordinance shall reduce the salary of, or deny without good cause an increase in salary given to all other municipal officers and employees to, any tax assessor, chief financial officer, tax collector or municipal clerk during the term for which he shall have been appointed. Except with respect to an ordinance or a portion thereof fixing salaries, wages or compensation of elective officials or any managerial, executive or confidential employee as defined in section 3 of the "New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act" P.L.1941, c.100 (C.34:13A-3), as amended, the ordinance shall take effect as provided therein. In municipalities wherein the provisions of Title 11 (Civil Service) of the Revised Statutes are in operation, this section shall be subject thereto.
Where any such ordinance shall provide for increases in salaries, wages or compensation of elective officials or any managerial, executive or confidential employee, the ordinance or that portion thereof which provides an increase for such elective or appointive officials shall become operative in 20 days after the publication thereof, after final passage, unless within said 20 days, a petition signed by voters of such municipality, equal in number to at least 5% of the registered voters of the municipality, protesting against the passage of such ordinance, be presented to the governing body, in which case such ordinance shall remain inoperative unless and until a proposition for the ratification thereof shall be adopted at an election by a majority of the voters voting on said proposition. The question shall be submitted at the next general election, occurring not less than 40 days from the date of the certification of the petition. The submission of the question to the voters shall be governed by the provisions of Title 19 (Elections) of the Revised Statutes, as in the case of public questions to be voted upon in a single municipality.

Not only were salary ranges and automatic, annual increases built in, Mayor Palmer chose to pay himself and his staff at the top of those ranges. Consistently.  The argument was made that when you have ranges, the average, qualified, competent employee should be paid at the midpoint of the range.  Someone with less than spectacular performance or a lack of experience would be paid in the lower part of the range; someone who excels at the job might expect to be paid at the higher end.  That’s common sense and good business.

The Palmer administration had no part of that. They argued that the cabinet members were all doing excellent work and must be paid as much as possible because many of the unionized employees they managed were making the same or more money.  Apparently there is some unwritten law that states the boss must make more than the employee.  And that argument was extended all the way up to the mayor.  If you inflate the department head salaries, then of course you have to raise the mayor’s. 

 To say the public was unhappy…or at least those who were paying attention…would be an understatement.

Flash forward to 2008. Not wanting to go through the hassle of having to explain the raises again, the Palmer administration illegally snuck them through via some vague language tacked onto the ratification of union contracts by city council.  It took a citizen to file a legal complaint against the city and a judge’s order to throw out those raises.  Of course, no one had to pay back the money they gained through the illegal raises.

That brings us to July 2010. Mayor Mack is sworn in and starts paying himself and his cabinet at the same rate, the top of the 2008 ranges that Palmer and company got.  Mack did this knowing the city was on the precipice of financial failure.  Mack did this while facing layoffs yet simultaneously going on a hiring spree, bringing in cronies and aides and interns and such.  Only because the ruling came down in August and was applied to the current administration did the pay scale get rolled back to the 2005 levels; the last legally passed pay raises.

A sympathetic, sentient Mayor would realize that a city with major financial issues, a city that must layoff hundreds of employees including 1/3 of the police department, can not afford to raise his salary or that of his cabinet.  Unfortunately for Trenton, Mayor Mack is neither sympathetic nor sentient.

Mayor Mack is a failed city leader. Eighteen months into his term, he has demonstrated no plan for improving public safety or economic development. He has demonstrated, repeatedly, an incredible lack of ability or will to do anything except hire and reward his friends while the city falls further and further into despair and disrepair.

Last night a very clear and strong message was sent to the mayor via the public comments at the city council meeting.  The people will not reward the continued incompetence of this administration with even the mere consideration of raising the mayor’s salary.

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