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City Beat Column — Raise The Roof

Jeff Clark - logoBY JEFF CLARK

…And it happened. As predicted, the Columbus City Council voted to give themselves a $4,000 pay raise, effective July 1. The bump will increase the salaries from $17,500 to $21,500, which is about a 30 percent increase.
The raise was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Ward 6 Councilman and current Vice Mayor Bill Gavin voting against the increase.
Now, let’s look at how this last minute item made it on the agenda at the eleventh hour.
First of all, I was told last week that Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong had called members of the council to see if they would support a pay increase, as it would have to be approved at Tuesday’s meeting (June 18), the last meeting before the new council – which is the old council minus Ward 4 Councilman Fred Stewart and with the addition of councilman-elect Marty Turner – takes over July 1.
In last week’s Packet, I said Armstrong was “polling” the councilmen, and I’m using the word “said” as opposed to “accused” because my words were not accusatory towards Armstrong, in regards to the possible pay increase. Armstrong, somewhat angrily, called me to tell me he had “not conducted a straw poll” with council members but he had simply had a conversation with the vice mayor to let him know if they wanted a pay increase, it would have to be voted on at the June 18 meeting. Armstrong assured me he only takes polls when he’s asked to do so.
But the talk about the pay increase had already started and it didn’t come from Gavin’s camp. Initially, I was told the increase was going to raise the council’s pay to $22,000. That was $500 off from the actual raise, but the number was in the ballpark.
The pay increase was said to have originated with Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor, but Taylor would neither confirm nor deny this when we had a friendly conversation at a convenience store last week — and no, it wasn’t at Taylor’s office at Riverhill Chevron.
However, the item, which wasn’t on the printed agenda before the council meeting, was added by Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens when he whispered it into Mayor Robert Smith’s ears before the council voted to approve the policy agenda.
Tuesday’s meeting was the last for long-serving Ward 4 Councilman Stewart, who was defeated by Turner through affidavit ballots in a May runoff election. And although there was a plaque waiting on Stewart from the council for his years of service, he, alas, was not there.
Perhaps Stewart was tired or maybe he was out of town, but the fact is he was not present at the meeting. Had Stewart made an appearance, things may have gone differently.
If Stewart had been present at the meeting, he would not have supported a council pay raise, which will benefit Turner, and the vote would have been split 3-3, meaning Smith would have to cast the tie-breaking vote.
This would have been a tough spot for Smith, who said the council had not had a pay raise since 2005. Smith being the tie-breaker on a pay raise for a young council would have some political implications. I’m not saying Smith doesn’t have moxie, he has plenty of “aggressive energy,” but if he had to break the tie, he would risk upsetting a majority black council and members of the black community or the white Republicans who helped place him in office — either way, someone was going to be angry with his decision.
But Stewart’s last minute fishing trip or vacation, or possibly a “to hell with this” attitude, prevented Smith from having to make a tough call and the council will get paid — handsomely.
Box and Gavin both verbally opposed the motion and voted against the raise. But actions speak louder than words when it comes to rhetoric. If Box and Gavin don’t want the pay raise, they can give the additional $4,000 before taxes to a charity such as the Palmer Home or the American Cancer Society. But they aren’t, to my knowledge, going to do that, and they shouldn’t be expected to give it back. As a society, we love money. We all want to take care of our families. It is the American way.
In the middle of June, it’s easy to be nonchalant about the pay raise. It’s been almost 10 years since the council has had one, although a 15 percent increase may be easier to digest than an almost 30 percent one. Let’s have this discussion again when the budget process starts later in the summer. The city’s departments and its employees are going to expect some necessary funding, as well.
The pay increase sets the proverbial stage for a bigger council drama — the selection of a vice mayor on July 2. There has been a lot of wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes, and alliances are being formed as we speak. The pay raise would not have even made the agenda had some deals not been cut among various council members. The reality of the situation is that Gavin will more than likely not have the votes to hold the position again. For Gavin to get back in, a 3-3 tie would have to take place and Smith would have to break the vote. It’s not going to happen. Turner is campaigning for the position, as well.
After the pay raise dust has settled, Karriem should have the votes to be vice mayor.

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