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More in Opinion
If your boss increases your pay, you just got a raise
An engaged citizenry is keenly aware of its rights and responsibilities when it comes to the openness of local government officials. Those same government officials occasionally feel entrenched to the point they believe their dictates are borderline gospel, and can best be challenged at the ballot box.
In the town of Paris, it's turned into a clear case of both sides believing its position is the correct one, and the other side needs to pull back and deal with it. In layman's terms, it's called a standoff.
Such is the case when it comes to the recent debate over the $6,000 pay raise the town's Board of Selectmen granted to Town Manager Amy Bernard, who's been on the job less than a year and has already received additional compensation with the pay raise and an additional two weeks vacation.
The selectmen's position is that Bernard, according to state statute, works for the board. The board hires the town manager and the board alone is responsible for her evaluation and any additional compensation. The manager does not work for citizens but the board. Board Chairman Robert Kirchherr staunchly defended the board's action that was promulgated without citizen input.
Those citizens, specifically Kathy and Jack Richardson, Paula Hakala and Anne Stanley, said at last week's selectboard meeting that the board's actions were objectionable. Their anger, disappointment and distrust – just a few of the words used at last week's meeting – was more directed at the "process" than it was at the individual. That's good.
It's hard to attack Bernard for getting the best compensation package she could manage. People negotiate the best deal they can for themselves all the time. Bernard bargained to the extent her supervisor, in this case, the board of selectmen, allowed her to do so.
What's not difficult, however, is to see that the board, even if it's within the parameters of its mandated mission, falls woefully short when it comes to operating within the framework of the public's perceptions of how it operates and how it handles the public's tax dollars.
A $6,000 pay hike, which citizens thought would be a $2,000 pay raise, is by all accounts exactly that – a pay increase. Unlike the description of being a "flat-line" remedy as suggested by Selectmen Sam Elliot, the $6,000 raise is still a sizable leap in a western Maine economy. A single mother, a struggling couple or a senior on a fixed income would celebrate if they were so lucky at paycheck time.
Of course citizens are upset. And they have every right to be.
In the recent past, Paris residents were told they may have to deal with darkened streets and no street lights. They almost lost their police force. Basic town services often find themselves at the front of the chopping block line. To see a new employee – even a town manager – come in at $53,000 and then jump to $59,000 within a year is not only hefty, it hurts. Bring that same employee to a four-week vacation schedule and one begs the question, "Who's minding the store?"
For his part, Kirchherr maintains the board operated in the open with Bernard's contract. As a personnel matter, he argued the board did not have to reveal its actions nor did it have to garner public input.
"As an employee, she is directly responsible to the board, not to the citizens. If you don't like the decision, you have to take it out on us," Kirchherr told the tightly packed meeting room. "This is the democratic political process at work."
In response, Kathy Richardson, who is also a member of the town's policy committee, asked, "Does it have to do with something we took from her and we have to restore?"
The board's position – it voted 4-1 to grant the raise, with only Selectman Gary Kilgore voting against – that it was merely restoring Bernard's package to meet that of the previous town manager is an untenable argument. So is the wording by Elliot that her salary was being "flat-lined"to be in line with Bernard's predecessor. It's situational semantics
As for the political process, no one at the meeting dovetailed their remarks with politics. They merely wanted to understand how the board arrived at its decision without the public being informed and kept up to speed. It is never, no matter what the issue, a healthy situation when public officials are battered with charges that undermine their integrity and honesty. Sadly, that's what happened.
Citizens should not be expected to digest a $6,000 pay hike for the sake of bringing the new manager up to par with what the previous manager earned. Moreover, they should not be misled into believing, as Elliot suggested, that "the town should thank us."
At present, the only people showing gratitude are Bernard, the board and a few citizens who thought the board took the proper steps.
As long as the words "We the people" are permanently engraved in the minds and monuments that make up our governments, public employees will always be accountable to the citizens and their taxpayer dollars that pay their salaries. Maybe in the annals of municipal and town governments the board's actions will pass legal muster. But in the court of public opinion and public perception, it will never pass the smell test.
The Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board