Politics & Government

Citizen group to decide city of Tacoma elected salaries

Robert Anderson thought the letter was yet another piece of junk mail clogging his mailbox.

The mailer, which purported to be from the Pierce County auditor, said he had been randomly selected to sit on the city’s Citizen Commission on Elected Salaries.

Yeah, right, he thought.

Skeptical, he asked a few friends. He called the city. Then Anderson, a chemical recovery boiler operator at the former Simpson Lumber Co. paper mill, realized the offer was real.

On Monday, he and four others who were randomly picked from registered voter rolls filed into a narrow room to convene the first-ever meeting of the body that will set salaries for the mayor and City Council. Filling out the group were two members selected by Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, one a human resources professional and the other a legal specialist.

Voters approved the creation of the commission last year, with 55 percent in favor of the change to the city’s charter.

Prior to that change, the only way salaries for elected officials could increase is if the council voted for the pay increase.

The last such vote was in 1998, when the council at the time voted for a 60 percent pay hike and installed a 2.75 percent yearly cost of living increase. Over time, those increases have driven salaries to more than $90,000 per year for the mayor and about $42,000 per year for council members.

The randomly selected commission members were drawn one each from the five City Council districts. Terry Mensonides is an accountant at a local architecture firm. Karen Robinson is a retired state professional who also worked for Xerox. Joe Zawacki owns a small business and Ron Malm is a chemical dependency professional.

Several members asked city staff to collect data first. How much money do City Council members make compared with the average wage in Tacoma, Zawacki asked, also, what is the average cost of living?

Mensonides said he wanted to know how many hours per week each council member spends on city business, although he said that can be an unreliable measure.

“You have some people who will say they work 40 hours, and are working 30 hours to get re-elected,” Mensonides said.

Some in the group wanted to compare salaries of elected officials in other cities to judge how to set pay for City Council members and the mayor.

But Dianne K. Conway, the legal specialist picked by the mayor, said they should be cautious. An elected official in another city might be considered the mayor, but in reality council members might rotate through that position.

Mayor appointee Richard Wilkinson, a University of Washington-Tacoma instructor who has 30 years of human resources experience, wondered what recommendation the mayor was looking for.

“The default is no change unless there’s a reason to change,” Wilkinson said.

“You can decrease (the salary) as well,” pointed out city Clerk Doris Sorum.

The only member of the audience who commented at the meeting was Sherry Bockwinkel, who had campaigned against the ballot measure to add the salary commission. She said the city’s union workers have had meager pay increases, if at all. A proposal with one union, she said, has outlined a zero percent increase in 2015, a quarter of a percent in 2016 and 1.25 percent in 2017.

“The only people who have gotten pay raises are the City Council,” Bockwinkel said.

The city charter says the group must finish its work each year by Sept. 1. The group’s decision is then transmitted to the city clerk and must be adopted by the City Council.

The commission will meet at 6 p.m. on each of the next three Tuesdays at Tacoma Municipal Building North in a first-floor room near the Market Street entrance.