Council gives itself pay raise in split vote; first salary hike since 1985

In a municipality where twists and turns have been the norm for three decades, at least one thing has remained constant: members of the Town Council are paid $300 a month, plus some health benefits.

That changed on Wednesday night, March 5.

The council voted, 3-2, to move forward in giving councilmemembers a salary hike of 145 percent, to $735 a month per member.

All that remains to make it official is what Town Attorney Andrew Morris called an "easy change" to the town ordinance.

The hike in salary would not affect the current council. But after the June 3 election, when a new council is seated, the pay raise will go into effect.

Veteran coincilmember John Eastman said he was strongly opposed to the measure, citing cuts in staff salaries as the primary reason.

"This is the wrong message, at the wrong time," he said.

Mayor Rick Wood also opposed the hike on the basis that the move needed to be included in the town's budget process, and not made as an arbitrary move.

Councilmember Matthew Lehman, who announced earlier in the week that he would not seek re-election, supported the pay raise, as did Mayor Pro Tem Jo Bacon and councilmember Michael Raimondo, both of whom are incumbents whose seats are not up for election in June.

The legislation was presented to the council by Morris and Town Manager Dan Holler, who wrote in the agenda bill that the proposal was in response to salary questions in light of the upcoming elections.

Three seats are open in the election, and at least one citizens’ group, Mammoth Forward, has the salary issue as a front-and-center plank.

“Mammoth Lakes has consistently had a difficult time attracting qualified, interested candidates for its Town Council that represent a true cross-section of the community,” the group states on its website.

“Because the compensation only includes a minimal stipend, plus health benefits, and the time invested to effectively serve on council is substantial, those of us who have families, need to work full time to support our lives in Mammoth and/or have many other community commitments are underrepresented.”

In a lighthearted joke during an unrelated schools-town liaison meeting on Feb. 25, Bacon said the way she figures it, council members make “about 27 cents an hour.”

The bill, as written by Holler and Morris, explained the procedure for making such a move to hike the salaries.

“In light of the upcoming council election, this is an issue that may be of interest to potential council candidates and other members of the public, as well as to the incumbent council members.

“As a ‘general law’ town, compensation is governed by state law. The current compensation is $300 a month and is set by [town] ordinance.

“Town Council salaries have been set at $300 a month since 1985, but California law provides three options for adjusting this amount upward.”

The first and simplest option, they advised the council on Wednesday, would be to adopt a new ordinance increasing council pay. 

State law sets the law at $300 a month for municipalities under 35,000, but allows that amount to be increased by 5 percent per year.

Since the Mammoth town council salaries have remained the same since 1985, the council could adopt an ordinance implementing 29 years of 5 percent increases.

Salary increases are not permitted to be compounded retroactively, according to state law, so a 145 percent increase (29 years at 5 percent) would increase salaries to $735 a month.

According to the bill, increases can be compounded going forward, but the council is not permitted to adopt an ordinance calling for automatic annual increases.

A second option for dealing with the issue would be to place a measure on the ballot that would allow voters to override the salary cap.

There is no limit to the salaries voters may approve.

The third and final option is the most drastic, and also would require voter approval.

This option would be to covert the town from a “general law” town to a “charter” town.

Charter towns are exempt from some state laws, and have historically exempted laws that cap council member salaries.

About 25 percent of the cities in California are charter cities.

Morris said a move to increase salaries by taking the charter route would be unwise.

"It would solve the problem, but it would be like swatting a fly with a battleship," he said.

In addition, Morris warned the council, new legislation from Sacramento, known as SB 7, “appears to essentially end the charter city exemption from prevailing wages.”