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Residents chime in on paying City Council

Conversations on how to compensate the Gresham City Council continue to draw criticism from residents.

About half a dozen residents attended the Finance Committee meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 19, debating whether the ballot measure voters approved in May would allow the committee to pay councilors based on their performance.

In May, voters passed two ballot measures giving the finance committee oversight on compensation of the city councilors and mayor. The ballot measure also put on a pay cap for Gresham positions at 45 percent of the equivalent Multnomah County salaries.

For example, if the Multnomah County chair makes an annual salary of $150,704, the maximum amount the Gresham mayor could earn is $67,817. If a Metro councilor makes $41,489, the highest amount a Gresham councilor could make is $18,670. Although the ballot measure was meant to clarify the issue on compensation, it essentially opened up Pandora’s box of questions.

Among the things the Finance Committee is now tasked with is setting the initial salary, deciding how much the city should pay toward the councilor and mayor’s health benefits and when the salary would become effective.

The main topic of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting was whether compensating the mayor and council would also allow the finance committee to assess the governing body’s performance.

During the citizen comment portion of the meeting, Gresham resident Jack Ardner asked the finance committee members if they plan to “pay them for maintaining the status quo? Or are you going to take a look at the direction the city is going and use compensation to drive real change?”

The committee maintains it does not have the authority to pay them based on performance, but said it would be helpful for the councilors to keep more formal track of their hours and the events they attend for the public to see.

“Are we here to provide the compensation packet as a carrot and stick?” asked Finance Committee Chairman Curt Hugo. “The voters have authorized us to set up a compensation package for a role as it is already defined, not to redefine a role.”

However, former councilor Dick Strathern told the committee not to waste an opportunity to push the council on creating change for the city.

“It may not have been what was intended,” Strathern said. “You may be taking a significant step forward for political reform and accountability for Gresham’s future. Don’t let it scare you.”

Carol Rulla, president of the Gresham Coalition of Neighborhoods, argued for more transparency. She said the Finance Committee should require councilors to keep track of their hours and the committee should explain in clear terms how the compensation fits in with their overall budget.

“You have to figure out how the (compensation) fits into your grand scheme,” Rulla said. “It might pay for two police officers. I’m not saying the council doesn’t deserve to be paid, but I think we have to say what are the trade-offs when we decided on the actual compensation.”

The next Finance Committee meeting is set for Sept. 16, where the issue of exactly how much the mayor and councilors will be compensated will likely be discussed.