LYNNWOOD — City Councilmembers rushed Wednesday night to eliminate the city’s citizen Salary Commission in hopes of blocking its recommendation to raise the mayor’s pay by 10% in January while cutting theirs starting in 2022.
But then they backed off, frustrated with the realization it was too late.
The salary commission unanimously approved those changes Oct. 15. Chairwoman Michele McGraw, well aware of the council’s intentions, filed the new salary schedules with the City Clerk on Tuesday night.
At this point, the only way to keep them from taking effect will be with a referendum to let voters have the final say.
“It is now in the hands of the people of Lynnwood,” said Councilman Jim Smith.
In Wednesday’s special meeting, the council spent nearly two hours in executive session before emerging and. one-by-one, expressing their dismay and disappointment with the commission, and vowing to rewrite the rules under which the commission operates in future years.
“In the end, I think what they’ve done is open a Pandora’s Box that they don’t realize,” said Councilman George Hurst. “We will need to take some corrective measures.”
Under city ordinance, the council cannot alter or change the commission’s action.
The commission hiked the mayor’s annual salary from the current $112,278 to $124,107, a 10.5% increase. It is set to take effect Jan. 1.
For council positions, the commission made a couple of changes.
It discarded the current system which combines a base pay of $10,800 and a meeting pay rate of $750 a month, or up to $9,000 a year. It set a flat $19,800 annual wage plus city benefits. The council president would continue to receive an additional $2,400 a year because of the position’s added duties.
But the commission also acted to lower those salaries. Annual pay for each position will decrease to $15,726 but the reduction will not occur until after the next election for the seat. In other words, no council pay will go down until the 2021 election and it will only go down for those positions on the ballot. Council members whose terms run through 2023 will continue to earn $19,800 until then.
In developing its recommendations, the commission compared salaries and benefits of Lynnwood’s elected officials with compensation packages of their counterparts in Edmonds, Bremerton, Issaquah, Mount Vernon and Redmond. Those cities were chosen because of similarities in areas such as size, government structure, and economic development.
“We tried to develop a methodology that was sound and would apply to both situations so it did not feel unfair,” McGraw said.
With the commission changes, the salaries of Mayor Nicola Smith and council members will now be equal to the average of what their counterparts make in those other cities.
In June, City Councilmembers and Smith sent a letter to commissioners asking them to not raise salaries because of the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, council members said commissioners ignored their request by increasing the mayor’s pay. Smith did not speak in Wednesday’s meeting.
“I am very disappointed in how this all came down. I really had faith in the system that there would be mutual respect,” said Councilwoman Shannon Sessions.
“We are not increasing their salaries. We are not going against the will of the City Council,” McGraw said.
She defended the decision to hike the mayor’s pay as necessary to ensure the position is compensated at a level that will attract talented and skilled individuals into public service.
“That position was not receiving adequate compensation when compared to like cities around us,” she said.
Councilmembers were peeved the commission filed the recommendations knowing the council didn’t approve.
“It is the worst part of politics,” Smith said. “This is a sad day for Lynnwood.”
On Monday, several former Lynnwood council members called for disbanding of the commission.
In a letter sent to the city, they blasted the recommendations and said the five volunteer salary commission members “appear to be looking out for the best interests of Mayor Smith, and not the residents and taxpayers of Lynnwood.”
Ted Hikel, a former City Councilman and one of the signees, said he’ll pursue a referendum to give voters the final say. He opposed slashing council earnings and disagreed with the process of comparing Lynnwood’s pay scales with other cities.
“Every city is different,” he said, noting the council has gone years without a wage adjustment.