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Question of council compensation produces lively debate

The Coalition of Neighborhood Associations hosted a forum on Wednesday, April 29, voicing arguments for and against giving the Gresham Finance Committee oversight regarding compensation for the city’s mayor and councilors.

Voters will have their say on May 19 on these two ballot measures, which will appear as Ballot Measure 26-166 and Ballot Measure 26-167 on election forms.

Speaking in favor of the measures were Michael Calcagno, an active member of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and vice chair of the city’s Citizen Involvement Committee; and Carol Rulla, president of the Coalition of Gresham Neighborhood Associations.

Speaking against the ballot measure were Dick Strathern, former Gresham city councilor; and John Vandermosten, a former chair of the city’s Citizen Involvement Committee.

In a nutshell, those supporting the measure think the mayor and councilors should get paid and that passing the measure would just be the beginning of a discussion on the amount and other specifics. Those against say the city doesn’t have enough money for basic services such as police and fire, and passing the measures would be like writing a blank check to the mayor and council.

Under the measures, the mayor’s compensation would not exceed 45 percent of that paid to the chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and the salary for councilors would not exceed 45 percent of the compensation paid to an elected Metro councilor.

The board of commissioner’s chair receives $147,605 annually, and Metro councilors receive about $40,000 annually.

Currently, the Gresham mayor and city councilors are not compensated, but receive stipends of $160 a month to cover such things as gas for city-related travel and cellphone usage.

Stathern’s main complaint is that “compensation” is too broad a term to vote on, and could open up the city to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits like health and life insurance for the governing body.

The pairs debated for more than an hour, taking questions from the audience in the Gresham Council Chambers. Calcagno said that paying the mayor and council is an investment in Gresham’s future, where Strathern said it would ruin the city’s history of volunteerism.

Vandermosten made the point that having the finance committee as the oversight body is a conflict of interest because the council appoints the finance committee, but Rulla reminded the audience that the finance committee prepares the city budget based on priorities decided by residents and should be trusted to make responsible choices.

Many residents said they were in favor of compensation but that the ballot measures were worded in a way that was too ambiguous and were confused about the process that would be in place to set the amount of compensation if the measures were to pass.

Calcagno said the passage of the measures would just be the beginning of a process that would be open and transparent to the public as those figures are decided.

“It’s not guaranteeing one cent goes to the mayor and council, its saying now the finance committee could have that conversation,” Calcagno said.

But Strathern fought back.

“Gresham is already awash in a tidal wave of monetary needs,” Strathern said. “Will adding compensation to the already overburdened budget add to the financial wave that will drown us all in limited services and infrastructure stagnation?”

Strathern argued that the city voters should vote on an actual amount, something that’s failed previously when put on the ballot. Rulla said giving oversight to the finance committee was best because it did not lock the city into a set amount of money.

A lot of discussion centered around how much work the mayor and councilors do and whether they would be expected to do more if they were paid, with those for the measures saying the governing body’s work is largely unseen and undervalued.

“You get what you pay for and when you pay someone nothing, it’s hard to expect everything in return,” Calcagno said.

Strathern had counter points for every argument.

“For nearly 100 years, Gresham has been led by volunteer mayors and councilors who love this city … tell me their performance was subpar because they were not compensated,” Strathern said.

Calcagno served up one new point of discussion at the end: folks who are not wealthy or retired are inherently kept out of the process if the positions continue to be unpaid.

“These measures enable the average Joe to step up and be a voice in our city and I think we’ll see more talented leaders step up,” Calcagno said. “We’ll see more diversity step up and ultimately it will lead to a stronger community.”

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