LAKE STEVENS — Shortly after setting a salary for the mayor, the city’s Salary Commission is back to the drawing board.
A move by the Lake Stevens City Council has split the once-unified citizen panel.
And the mayor, who’s been publicly silent, is now weighing in.
At issue is whether the $80,000 annual wage for the city’s first full-time mayor is enough.
The five-member salary commission unanimously agreed on that amount Oct. 19, following a public hearing during which some residents said they want it lower and others higher. It took effect for Mayor Brett Gailey on Nov. 19.
Commissioners knew mayors in similar-sized cities earned more. With no clear job description or track record on which to compare, they said at the time, they wanted to act fairly and be fiscally prudent in the midst of a pandemic that’s created economic hardship for residents and uncertainty for the city.
But their action roiled several council members who say $80,000 is too low and want the panel to raise it. Some are poised to seize the power to set the mayor’s salary themselves if commissioners don’t act.
During a Dec. 1 work session, they argued the salary doesn’t reflect the job’s demands and is too far below what similar-sized cities pay.
Lynnwood and Mount Vernon pay their full-time mayors $112,278 and $108,096, respectively, according to a report provided to the council. And Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith will earn $124,107 next year after that city’s salary commission approved a raise.
“I cannot fathom that disparity. I need to know why there is that disparity,” said Councilman Kim Daughtry. “I think we’re asking the mayor to do a heck of a lot more than what the mayors of the other cities have to do.”
Councilmembers backed off, for now, from pursuing an ordinance stripping the commission of its power to set the mayor’s wage. Instead, they directed commissioners to reconsider their decision in January with the hope it results in an increase to put Gailey’s salary in line with his peers in those other cities.
The next day, at the commission’s last regularly scheduled meeting of the year, a divide surfaced among members.
Commissioners Brian McManus and Michelle Hampton said they should hold firm and revisit the matter next September when the panel traditionally begins its annual review of salaries of the mayor and city council.
“I think we’re at a fair rate to start with. The mayor is not going to go hungry,” McManus said. “We have to hold our ground. They haven’t given us any information that would change my mind. I’m not sure why we’re backpedaling.”
Hampton, the commission chairwoman, said “harsh words and bully tactics are not the way to go. I think we did do our job. I think we should stay with what we decided.”
But commissioners Sue Fernalid and Carolyn Bennett voiced support to boost the pay to at least $100,000, as desired by the council.
“We want Lake Stevens to stand above the other cities. We want to be proud of our city,” Fernalid said. “To me, we’re too far off at $80,000. We may have started too low.”
Bennett said she felt a wage around $100,000 “would be appropriate and right” and vowed to “stand firm” if and when the time comes to act.
The fifth member, Dixie Behn, did not attend the meeting.
While commissioners differed on the issue of money, they shared anger at the city council’s pursuit of a policy to take away their power simply because it didn’t like their decision.
“I took it as a personal insult,” Fernalid said. “I take this seriously.”
In Lake Stevens, a city of 34,000 residents, the mayor is directly elected to serve a four-year term. When Gailey was elected in 2019, the part-time nonpartisan post paid $26,804 a year.
In September, the council voted to convert the position to a full-time gig and instructed the salary commission to set an annual wage which, under city rules, cannot be changed by the city council.
The city operates with a strong-mayor form of government, meaning the mayor is the city’s CEO, responsible for hiring key staffers, representing Lake Stevens in various civic roles and serving as the public face of government. The mayor hires the city administrator to handle day-to-day operations.
Gailey, who has not taken part in the salary-setting process, backs the council’s approach.
“I’m good with it. I know they can’t completely tell (the commission) where to be,” he said. “When you look at what full-time mayors in comparable cities have for salaries, I would have to agree with the council that the ($80,000) figure is not within the average.”
Meanwhile, the salary commission left the task of deciding what benefits to offer with the position to the city council.
On Tuesday, the council is expected to approve a package that includes medical, dental and vision coverage, life insurance and a deferred compensation match of up to 5% of the annual salary.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos