Let voters, not elected leaders, settle pay issue

Port Orchard’s neighbors across the county line in Gig Harbor are experimenting with a method for paying their elected leaders that’s so logical there must be something illegal about it.

Quite simply, the city is asking the voters to sort it all out rather than letting the electeds decide for themselves how big a raise they deserve — or if they deserve one at all.

According to published reports, the city’s mayor and city council members haven’t received a pay raise in 10 years — which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself, depending on your point of view. To address the problem, or determine if there is one, Gig Harbor is recruiting local residents to serve on salary commission that will review elected officials’ compensation later this year.

Gig Harbor’s mayor currently earns $923 a month, and each of its seven council members make $254 per month — amounts that could go up or down or not change at all depending on the commission’s recommendations.

By way of comparison, Port Orchard’s mayor earns $1,446 per month and its council members $500. Obviously it’s not a full-time wage in either city — and that’s by design.

But the question to be asked by a cost-conscious taxpayer shouldn’t be how much a public servant should be paid for a part-time job that can frequently take up as much of that person’s time as their primary livelihood does.

Like any rational employer with other overhead expenses to worry about, our question should be, “How little can we pay those who work for us and still expect an acceptable level of service in return?”

We don’t have the answer, but in our estimation it makes vastly more sense to have the payers searching for it than it does the payees.

“I think it’s nice to get it out of our hands,” Gig Harbor Councilman Paul Kadzik said. Tim Payne, his colleague on the council, echoed that he “trusts the citizens” to review his salary.

We shall see.

Among other things, it isn’t clear from the reports we’ve read who will serve on the review board or how they would be chosen. And a cynic would argue that handing the responsibility to a hand-picked group of cronies could actually make the process less accountable while providing political cover for the elected leaders into whose bank accounts the pay raises will be deposited.

But at this point, let’s give the mayor and council the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re actually going to appoint a fair-minded commission that’s going to be very careful about how it spends the taxpayers’ money because it’s made up of, well, taxpayers.

With respect to giving the voters more direct control over the compensation of their elected leaders than simply the right to vote for someone else next time, however, two points seem indisputable.

First, public service should first and foremost be just that — service. And the people who serve should be motivated primarily by a burning desire to make the community better, not to better their own financial situation.

No one expects public service to be a money-losing proposition. But at the same time, we don’t necessarily agree there is a direct correlation between how much an elected official is paid and how well he or she will perform in office.

In any case, the best way to determine the value of anything in a free society is on the basis of its market demand. To that end, again, asking the people doing the paying to decide what value they place on the service being provided strikes us as a far more market-based solution than simply asking the person on the receiving end of the arrangement to pick a nice round number out of thin air.

Would that more of those drawing a paycheck on all levels of the public sector could have their contributions scrutinized and evaluated — and if necessary adjusted upward or downward — on a regular basis the way such things are done in the private sector.

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