Saturday, April 20, 2013

Politics hits village paychecks

In a surprise move last Wednesday night, the New Paltz village board voted to return trustee and mayoral salaries to the levels they were a year ago.  What's amazing is that the reasons for doing so were even worse than the ones that justified voting themselves a raise in the first place.

Check out video of the meeting, which I have cued up to start at 1:55:30, which is when the discussion begins.  Then come on back for some context and analysis.

Recall that back in 2006, after getting a raise from $8,000 to $25,000, Jason West was rebuffed when he asked for the job to be defined as full-time, with a $40,000 salary and benefits.  He expressed at the time that he would have to go back to painting houses, and the village would not get as much of him as it needed.

Somehow, it survived.  West lost an election, and then won the next.  Apparently unaware that the job description and pay rate was the same as it had been, the returned mayor did recall how heavily his request to a second large raise had factored into his defeat, so he got trustee Sally Rhoads to make the pitch for raises all around a year into his new term.

At the time, I denounced the idea of midterm raises, as did some trustees.  Stewart Glenn expressed then, and this past week, the same argument I did:  elected officials know how much the job pays when they're running for it, so they should either put the idea of a raise into their campaign platform, or defer any increase until past the next election.  (A comment on the post linked at the beginning of this paragraph claims that West stated publicly in 2011 that he would neither seek nor accept an increase in pay, but I haven't confirmed that.)

Which brings us to this week, when four trustees voted to strip themselves and the mayor of last year's boost for the coming year, and knock the big job back to a part-time position.  Last year the arguments for the the raises had to do with attracting the right sort of people, acknowledging how hard the jobs are (our village board meets at three or more times a month and spend far more hours doing their jobs than I have ever understood), and so forth.

But this time around, in voting to roll back the reasons, the effectively said it was because they all think Jason West is a lazy jerk.

I'm going to put my cards on the table here:  I don't like Jason West.  I supported his return to office after six months of questioning him to see if he was a better man for his years off, but soon thereafter he decided he didn't have the time to talk to me about village business . . . despite having appointed me to a volunteer board.  When I called him on it, he likened me to a stalker, and when my sewer line was destroyed by village incompetence, he told me to get a port-a-potty.

I read Pride and Politics, Erin Quinn's book about the same-sex weddings (which is apparently out of print), and it was obvious that West did the right thing for the wrong reasons:  he wanted to officiate at a friend's wedding, plain and simple.  To help those friends, he told the village attorney for find a legal justification for marrying them.  Because I'm not a friend, when my family needed help, he told the village attorney to handle me.  (In the end, that decision cost the village close to $9,000, when all I wanted was a couple of days for the DPW guys to put back in what the planning board had illegally allowed to be taken out.)

So as someone who doesn't like Jason West and doesn't think New Paltz needs a man like him, let me state clearly:  the village board was wrong to cut Jason West's salary.  It was wrong for two big reasons:

  1. Just like a raise, it may be legal to push the cut through mid-term, but it's completely inappropriate.  Don't change the terms of the employment contract, period.  It's nice to see it rolled back because it was the height of hubris to pass the raise in the first place, but who on earth is going to run for a job if they are committed to four years and have no clue how much they're going to make each year?  Running for office is a balancing act:  can I afford what the position pays, and is it a reasonable trade-off for the power I will wield?  Candidates need to be able to make that determination.
  2. It's immature.  I plan on voting against West in 2015, but I don't spit in his face when I meet him on the street.  That's what the board has done, because they don't like him.  He has resisted consolidation efforts, almost certainly to protect his own job, but he's raised perfectly valid points along the way.  If you didn't know who he was when you voted for him, like me, then you'll just have to act like an adult and put up with him for another two years.
Incidentally, this problem is by no means just a village issue.  Sue Zimet shouldn't have gotten a pay raise, either, and when Mike Nielson got one as highway superintendent back in 2010, he sent them a letter telling them to take it back, saying in part, "When I ran for my current position I understood the length of term and compensation provided. Bearing that in mind I respectfully request that the salary of the Superintendent of Highways remain at the current level for the entirety of my current term."

Nielson's letter was never discussed at any public meeting, and his request was ignored.

Nielson also pointed out all of the arguments regarding attracting the best people to the job, and in fact suggested that a higher salary for that position was appropriate . . . for the next term.  That was the only time I have seen an elected official in this town who really cared more about the community than his own political future.  I really hope we can find a way to attract more like him.

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