By Paul Wolf, Esq.
In a 2015 Buffalo News article about high earning government employees, Amherst Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein stated that “It is unseemly to raise your own salary”. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend of unseemly pay raises by local politicians lately.
Back Door Raises in Buffalo
The Buffalo Common Council recently gave themselves a $5,000 raise by not increasing their $52,000 per year salaries but by increasing their stipends. Stipends were created years ago as a back door way to boost a Councilmember’s salary due to the additional duties of chairing a committee.
The Council does not have the power to raise their own salaries. For elected officials in the City of Buffalo to get a salary increase, they first have to establish a Salary Review Commission, which would review current salaries and recommend whether an increase is warranted. If an increase is approved, it does not take effect until after the next election. With an election taking place before raises are implemented, elected officials have to defend and answer to their constituents why they voted for a raise.
Why go through the process of a Salary Review Commission and wait for an election when a simple vote by Councilmembers can immediately boost their “stipends”! Of course every Councilmember but one gets a stipend, so every member but one gets a $5,000 raise. No doubt the odd Councilmember left out will get compensated somehow.
Bait & Switch Raises in Amherst
The Amherst Town Board recently did an “unseemly” pay grab by using the old bait and switch tactic. On the meeting agenda was an item to boost the Town Clerk’s salary from $65,000 to $66,300. I thought it was odd that one elected official was being singled out for a small pay raise. Two hours into a three-hour meeting when many citizens had left, the item to raise the Clerk’s salary came up for a vote. Board member Steve Sanders made a motion to amend the item to include approximately 40% pay raises for all Amherst elected officials, which was quickly seconded by Romona Popowich.
How a $1,300 raise for the Town Clerk turned into a $17,000 raise for the Clerk, a $30,000 raise for Town Supervisor and a $10,000 raise for Board Members, without any notice or input by the public is truly amazing.
In the past raises for elected officials where done after consideration by a Salary Review Commission and public input at a hearing. Raises in the past also did not become effective until after the next election so that elected officials could not raise their own salaries during their current terms. Board member Fran Spoth ran for the Town Board knowing that the salary was $25,500. Nine months after being sworn in for her first term she voted to increase her salary by $9,500. Romona Popowich is half way through her term and likewise two years after her election voted to raise her own pay.
Kudos to Board Members Deborah Bucki and Barry Weinstein for voting against the raises.
Fortunately, the public will have an opportunity to speak at a public hearing regarding the Amherst budget and pay raises on October 10th and 19th at 7:00 p.m.
Even Our Founding Fathers Were Opposed to Elected Officials Raising Their Own Pay
In 1789, James Madison proposed twelve Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Ten of the Amendments were approved and became known as the Bill of Rights. One of the items that did not get passed was preventing Senators and Members of Congress from raising their own pay. Before a pay raise could become effective Madison wanted an election to occur.
Madison’s proposed Amendment did not get approved until 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when the idea resurfaced again. Madison had the right idea and if Senators and Members of Congress are prohibited from unseemly raising their own salaries then local elected officials should not be allowed to do so either.
Each municipality has the ability to pass a local law similar to the 27th Amendment that simply states:
“No increase in the salary of any elected official shall take effect until the current term of office of the elected official that is to receive an increase in salary has ended.”
The question is whether any elected officials are willing to sponsor legislation preventing future unseemly pay grabs?
Paul Wolf is a local attorney, advocate for open government and greater citizen participation in government, he can be contacted at email@example.com