, Salem, MA

March 18, 2014

Our view: With push for raises, officials put themselves before the public

The Salem News

---- — Forget about serving others. For many local politicians, the new rule seems to be: “First, take care of yourself.” How else to explain the post-election grab for cash in Peabody and Salem?

In Peabody, the five elected members of the Peabody Light Commission have decided they want a raise of more than 27 percent, from $4,000 a year to $5,100.

Commissioners meet once a month, helping the light plant operators manage the budget and set policy. There are no meetings during the beach weather months of July and August. On that work schedule, $4,000 seems more than fair compensation for what is supposed to be public service.

But wait, there’s more. Light commissioners are also eligible for the same health insurance as full-time employees. All five commissioners take advantage of the deal at a cost to taxpayers of $13,500 to $22,000 per commissioner. (Commissioner Charles Bonfanti qualifies for the insurance as a retired city employee.)

So, that’s $17,500 to $26,000 for 10 meetings a year (plus some subcommittee work) with summers off. Maybe there is a reason the commissioners haven’t seen a pay raise since 1995 — it’s already too high.

It is obvious the City Council should reject the plan. Whether or not they will is another question.

“I guess if they haven’t gotten a raise since 1995, they should get something,” City Councilor Mike Garabedian told reporter Alan Burke. “They all deserve more than they get.”

Wrong. Everybody loses when elected officials — supposedly driven by the urge to serve the public — start thinking less about those who elected them and more about increasing their own pay. It’s not just legislators in Washington, D.C., who are out of touch.

Salem City Councilors proved as much earlier this year when they voted to give themselves a 20 percent raise, from $10,000 a year to $12,000. That the raise was tied to an increase for Mayor Kimberley Driscoll made it no less questionable.

It fell to City Solicitor Beth Rennard to point out the ethical pitfalls everyone else could see from a mile away.

Councilors can’t vote for something that would give them an “immediate and foreseeable” financial benefit, said Rennard, who consulted with the state’s Ethics Commission.

To put it even more plainly: No, councilors, you cannot vote yourselves a raise.

You shouldn’t need help from the Ethics Commission to figure that out. The council later voted to delay their raises until January of 2016, after the next election. Whether these councilors will be re-elected — or whether they will have earned a raise — has yet to be determined. They are certainly off to a poor start.