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Sunday, May 12, 2013
Have you ever seen the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day”? It’s a Bill Murray comedy about an egotistical TV weatherman from Pittsburgh and an annual assignment he despises: covering Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Pennsylvania groundhog.
One year the weatherman finds himself trapped both in Punxsutawney and in a time loop, repeating Feb. 2 over and over again. Ultimately, this causes him to take stock of his priorities in life and make significant changes.
Which brings us to Mayor David Bowers, his and Roanoke City Council members’ salaries and Bowers’ serial attempts to raise them over the past 17 years. The issue will be back before the council Monday.
It’s been a comedy of errors each time, with Bowers usually ending up as the brunt of anger and many jokes. In 2000, it arguably cost him re-election. Let’s review.
Midway through Bowers’ first term in May 1996, he and the council voted 6-1 to raise the mayor’s pay from $15,000 to $18,000, (20 percent) and council members’ from $13,000 to $14,000 (8 percent).
This happened almost immediately after the 1996 General Assembly raised the salary cap on cities of Roanoke’s size. Until then, council salaries had been at the state maximum for six years and the mayor’s had been at the maximum for nine years.
But Bowers and the council bungled it by hatching their plan in an unlawful closed meeting. When this newspaper brought that to light, they repealed the illegal ordinance then lawfully re-enacted it three weeks after the first attempt. Then-Councilman Mac McCadden was the only one who voted against it.
A year later, the mayor and the council waded into the pay raise muck again. At Bowers’ prodding, the council voted 5-2 to give the mayor a $5,000 pay raise (28 percent) and the council a $2,000 raise (15 percent). Then-Vice Mayor Linda Wyatt and then-Councilman Nelson Harris were the dissenters.
This time it was lawful. But unlike in 1996, the public erupted with outrage. The focal point was Bowers and the double-digit raises he voted to give himself two years in a row.
Once again, a law passed by the 1997 Virginia General Assembly preceded the move. It said that after July 1, 1997, the council would have to enact a pay increase for itself four months preceding the next council election — a politically risky time to do it.
Bowers made it worse when he justified the raises by arguing, “People who devote themselves to public life are just beat up. The press has a heyday with them.”
Angry Roanokers — some of them carrying signs — crowded into city hall chambers to denounce the council’s action. The scorn and derision they heaped on city hall was so great that the council folded and ultimately undid the raises.
A little more than two years later — on Dec. 20, 1999, Bowers and the council were back at it again. This time, they tried to raise the mayor’s salary from $18,000 to $21,000 (17 percent) and the council’s from $14,000 to $16,000 (15 percent).
Once again the council screwed up. They had left the ordinance off their agenda. They brought it up near the end of a meeting after most citizens had left. It passed 4-3 without discussion. It looked like they were trying to sneak something through.
City council members Jim Trout, Linda Wyatt and Nelson Harris voted against it; Bowers and Alvin Hudson, Carroll Swain and Bill White voted in favor.
But because the raises didn’t muster five votes, it required a second vote at a subsequent meeting. The hitch was there were no more council meetings scheduled in 1999 — and both votes had to happen in the same year.
So Bowers called for an emergency meeting at 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 31 — New Year’s Eve. That made the measure an emergency ordinance, which requires five votes. Again the vote was 4-3, so the raises failed. The meeting was acrimonious.
Three council members called coverage of the issue in this newspaper inaccurate, unfair, negative and abusive. When Trout tried to say something near the end, Bowers refused to recognize him, banged his gavel to close the meeting, and said, “Tell it to the press.”
Bowers lost his bid for re-election to Ralph Smith the following May. In subsequent years, there were a series of less controversial — and smaller — raises.
In July 2002, the council gave itself a $490 raise (3.5 percent). Smith declined a pay hike. In May 2003, the council raised the mayor’s salary to $19,050 (6 percent), effective July 1, 2004. The council got a bump to $14,816. In May 2007, the council raised the mayor’s pay to $20,000 (5 percent) effective July 1, 2008, which is when Bowers reassumed the office. The council’s pay went to $15,560.
For three years beginning in 2009, the mayor and the council rolled back their pay by 5 percent because the city budget was under a lot of stress. The pay reverted to 2008 levels July 1, 2012.
Now, larger raises are on the table again. Though sponsored by Councilman Bill Bestpitch, Bowers was the one who first broached the idea. Believe it or not, he brought it up on April Fool’s Day — but he wasn’t kidding.
An ordinance on the agenda for Monday would raise the mayor’s salary from $20,000 to $23,000 (15 percent) and council members from $15,560 to $20,000 (28 percent). Once again, the council seems sharply divided.
There are three issues here. The first is whether the mayor and the council ought to get a raise. It’s easy to argue they should, just by checking an inflation calculator. An $18,000 salary adjusted for inflation since 1996 would be more than $26,000 today.
The second is how to do it. Big-percentage increases every four or more years are far from the best way. It’s an eyebrow raiser for taxpayers and a political distraction for council members. It’s also a morale bummer for rank-and-file city employees who get much less, if anything, annually. Why not give the mayor and the council the same annual raise as them?
The third issue is who should lead the charge on raises. Because of his previous fumbles, Bowers is the last one who should do it. It’s a toxic issue for him. People are going to start calling him “Pay Raise Dave.”
Which brings us back to the movie “Groundhog Day.”
With repeated doses of unpleasant deja vu, its weatherman learned some valuable lessons. It’s a pity David Bowers has not.
Weather JournalStorm track isn't very snowy for us