2013-06-28 / Front Page

Council pay should stay

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The debate that the led to the South Portland City Council’s decision last year to eliminate its own health care benefit was tense, argumentative and at times, somewhat nasty.

Ultimately, the council chose to eliminate the health care benefit and tasked a seven-member “blue ribbon committee” with the task of re-evaluating compensation for all the city’s board and commissions. The temporary committee was composed of seven residents hand-picked by a consultant, Michael Wing of Harpswell, who was hired by the city.

The seven members selected in March were Natalie West, Richard Rottkov, David Canarie, Andy Charles, Brian Dearborn, Carol Thorne and Albert DiMillo Jr. Wing originally selected five individuals he believed represented the diverse interests of the city, but expanded the number to seven to include all of South Portland’s five districts.

The committee met four times starting in April, and finished its work Tuesday, June 18, when the seven members signed a report recommending minor changes to city’s system of compensation.

The final report from the blue ribbon committee recommends keeping the council compensation the same, at $3,000, while increasing the stipend for school board members from $1,000 to $1,500.

According to committee members, the tone of the discussion in the meetings was respectful and productive, drastically different from the tenor of the council’s workshops last summer.

Blue ribbon committee member Andy Charles, owner of Haven’s Candies, said there were disagreements among the members and the debate, at times, was “spirited,” but each individual was respectful of the other members’ opinions throughout the process.

“It was an excellent committee,”Wing added.Before the committee could decide on an amount to pay the members of the city’s boards and commissions, members first had to discuss the purpose of the compensation. In the debate surrounding the council health care benefits, former Councilor Tom Coward argued compensation should serve as an incentive to drive qualified and intelligent community members to public service.

Ultimately, the blue ribbon committee rejected that idea, and according to its report, also decided the stipend should not serve “to compensate citizens for the hours spent in the service to their community.”

Instead, the report indicates the stipend should simply “defray expenses” for the members of the city’s boards and commissions.

From that starting point, armed with data from surrounding communities supplied by Wing and Maine Municipal Association, the committee then discussed the actual figures to compensate councilors, board and committee members.

The committee decided upon the $3,000 figure for the council and $1,500 for the board of education through two 5-2 votes. According to the report, the committee felt both figures generally align South Portland with other communities in terms of compensation. Most school area school boards receive less than $3,000 in compensation, although Portland members receive $5,900 and have access to the city’s health car eplan.

Committee members Richard Rottkov and Natalie West voted to increase the council stipend to $4,000, while Brian Dearborn and Carol Thorne voted to keep the school board compensation at $1,000.

The blue ribbon committee’s recommendation will next move to the city council for review, where Charles said he expects councilors to go through the report “with a finetoothed comb.”

If the council accepts the committee’s recommendation and decides to propose a charter change, the matter would move to a voter referendum in November. However, even if the voters ultimately accept the change, Dearborn said the school board still must approve its own raise, and it may decide to reject the recommendation.

“We can’t force them to take an increase,” Dearborn said. “Look at what they’re going through now with their budget issues.”

School board member James Gilboy said he would not vote to increase the compensation for himself and fellow school board members, which would present a $3,500 cost increase under the committee’s proposal. Gilboy said although he is an elected official, he approaches his position as a volunteer.

“When we battle every year for the things we want for the school system, to then look for a bump up in compensation, I wouldn’t recommend that,” Gilboy said.

“If that meant one less coach, one less music teacher or having to cut a program, I wouldn’t support it,” he added.

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