Rock Hill Council set to double pay for itself, mayor

adouglas@heraldonline.comOctober 5, 2013 

Rock Hill City Council members and Mayor Doug Echols are set to become the highest-paid elected officials in York County, if the council gives final approval in two weeks to a pay raise for themselves.

Last month, the council voted unanimously to nearly double the council and mayor’s pay after discussing the issue for more than an hour.

The recommendation to boost the council’s pay came from a compensation committee appointed in August by Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols.

Council members now receive $8,000 in salary and $1,800 annually for expenses. The mayor receives $12,542 in salary and $3,600 annually for expenses.

Their pay has not increased since 1988.

On Oct. 14, the council is expected to vote on whether to eliminate the annual expense money and nearly double the council’s total compensation, effective Jan. 14.

Council members would be allowed to submit receipts for reimbursements when incurring some expenses while serving.

Under the proposed change, council members would receive $16,348 and the mayor would receive $25,667.

The proposed raise would make Echols the highest-paid elected official in York County, making about $7,000 more than York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell.

The seven City Council members would receive about $100 more annually than their counterparts on the County Council.

Echols and other City Council members said last month they don’t serve to make money, but the pay raise is needed because the spending power of their salary is half of what it was in 1988, when the salaries were set.

Over those 25 years they say their responsibilities have grown because Rock Hill and its city services have grown.

While council positions are intended to be part-time jobs, council members said their duties often require a full-time commitment.

Since the council’s Sept. 23 vote to increase its pay, Echols said, he has received no negative comments from residents.

Public not involved in meetings

Rock Hill’s mayor-appointed compensation committee meetings might have violated state open meetings law, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

In August, 10 Rock Hill residents were invited and two city employees were appointed to serve on the mayor’s group, called the “Citizens Committee on Elected Officials’ Compensation.”

The compensation committee met at City Hall at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 29 and Sept. 3 for about 3.5 hours total.

The meetings were not advertised publicly, and there was no discussion of the compensation committee during public city meetings until Sept. 23, when the City Council voted on the raises.

While some on the compensation committee told The Herald they voted during one of their meetings, the final decision on whether to increase the council’s pay rested with the council members.

The state Freedom of Information Act states that “every meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public,” with some exceptions allowed for contractual and personnel discussions and to receive legal advice.

The law also states that public bodies must give 24-hour written notice of public meetings, except in the case of emergencies. And, that “public bodies shall keep written minutes of all of their public meetings” and the minutes must be made available to the public.

City officials said last week that the compensation committee did not keep minutes.

Groups such as school boards, city councils and any group supported by or responsible for spending public money are considered “public bodies” in South Carolina.

Rock Hill’s compensation committee should have followed open meetings law, Rogers said, because it would be considered a “public body” under FOIA law.

“If they did not meet the (open meetings law) requirements, then any citizen could challenge this decision as being made improperly,” he said.

Rock Hill leaders should learn a lesson about opening meetings to the public, he said, and possibly have the compensation committee meet again and invite the public to attend.

“With something like this,” he said, “it’s important that the public have input, and they’ve totally bypassed public input.”

Echols disagrees, saying that because the whole City Council did not appoint the compensation committee members, it was not obligated by law to give notice of its meetings.

Rock Hill’s attorney could not be reached last week for comment on whether the compensation committee should have followed state FOIA law.

Using the compensation committee was the best possible way to evaluate council members’ salary, Echols said, because the committee members were studying facts and providing professional review on the issue.

The members brought diverse opinions and backgrounds to the table, he said, and represented a cross section of the community.

By choosing residents and local business people, he said, the committee included public input.

Paul Anderko, a Rock Hill resident and conservative political activist, disagrees. He said the public should have been invited to the meetings.

Council members deserve to be paid, Anderko said, but he takes issue with the process they’re using to give themselves a raise.

Anderko plans to attend the Oct. 14 meeting to voice concern over the compensation committee meetings.

When the council voted on the pay raises on Sept. 23, no one from the public spoke in opposition to the increases.

The council should table the pay raise proposal, he said, and re-do the first reading on the raises to give the public a chance to weigh in.

“They should have brought out this discussion about raises so people could have a chance to bring up their disgust or agree with the council,” Anderko said. “The way they handled this looks bad on the city and City Council.”

Election filings ended before talks of raise

Members of the compensation committee received a letter in August, asking them to serve.

The filing period for candidates who wanted to run for City Council closed a week before the committee’s first meeting to discuss the pay raises.

Four council seats, including the mayor’s, are up for re-election on Oct. 15.

Echols, Mayor Pro-Tem John Black and Councilman Jim Reno are running without opposition.

The fourth open seat, for Ward 5, is the only contested race. Councilman Osbey Roddey announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election.

Echols said the timing of the pay raise discussion has nothing to do with the election schedule or the fact that the filing period had closed by the time the committee met.

In fact, he said, he wanted to take politics out of the equation because the council hasn’t seen a raise in 25 years.

The fact that no one is running against an incumbent in the October election, Echols said, probably means that people in Rock Hill are pleased with the council members and the direction of the city.

By the time the compensation committee met, Rock Hill was already about two months into its new budget year.

The city held several budget-related meetings before the council voted on this year’s spending in June. Part of that budget included a 1.5 percent pay raise for city employees – down from a 3 percent pay increase approved in the past.

Those incremental pay raises for employees mean that a worker who has been with the city since 1988 is essentially making double, compared to 25 years ago – the same time in which council members have not received pay increases.

The extra $24,400 needed to cover council pay increases in the first half of 2014 was not budgeted in June.

Annually, the higher pay would cost the city $123,755. This year’s budget estimates Rock Hill would have spent about $74,940.

One way to cover the cost of raises, city officials said last week, would be to avoid filling an employee position that recently became vacant – a strategy sometimes used to pay for unplanned expenditures.

‘Embarrassing’ pay for council

Several members of the mayor-appointed committee told The Herald last week that raises for the council are long overdue.

Their current pay is “almost embarrassing,” said Neal Barber, an appointed compensation committee member.

Barber also serves as president of Rock Hill’s Council of Neighborhoods.

Adequate compensation for elected officials is important, Barber said, to ensure that qualified people will run for office and serve the community well.

“They shouldn’t be in a losing proposition to do that,” he said, “but (they) shouldn’t get rich either.”

Roger Weikle, appointed chairman of the compensation committee, said “leadership matters,” and paying a fair salary to the council is important to Rock Hill’s progress.

He is OK with the committee’s closed meetings, he said, because the City Council’s first and second votes on the pay raises will have been made in public.

Holding public hearings on the issue before drafting recommendations, he said, likely would not have been productive.

Part of the committee’s work included comparing Rock Hill’s salaries to other cities and towns in South Carolina and North Carolina.

Currently, Rock Hill’s mayor and council members receive less in compensation than their counterparts in several other nearby cities including Sumter, where council members make $10,491, and Concord, N.C., where council members are paid $12,734.

Under the changes, Rock Hill’s $16,348 pay to council members would surpass the pay in those cities and others, including Charleston, North Charleston, Greenville, Florence and Spartanburg.

The pay increase would close the gap when comparing Rock Hill to other cities, such as Charlotte, where City Council members make $30,760 and the mayor makes $41,013, inclusive of expense allowances.

The Herald asked officials in cities in the comparison group about how their councils have raised salaries in the past.

• In Myrtle Beach – where the mayor’s salary is increasing in January from $20,000 to $50,000 – the City Council approved a raise about two years ago, during public budget meetings.

• In Spartanburg, the mayor is paid $20,200 and council members are paid $11,400, with allowances included. The last pay raise in Spartanburg – approved in 1999 – was discussed publicly during the city’s budget season, the council’s clerk said.

• In 2008, council pay raise discussions in Anderson were public and voted on during approval of the yearly budget, said Rachel Mullinax, executive administrative assistant. Anderson’s mayor makes $15,000 and its council members make $10,000.

• That same year, when the city of Florence last approved a City Council pay raise, the vote happened a few months after other budget-related votes and discussion – similar to Rock Hill’s council’s process. To minimize the impact on Florence’s budget, the council voted to spread out over three years a $641 raise for the mayor and $4,870 for council members.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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