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Thursday, June 6, 2013
One thing about local governments — they generate a lot of extreme feeling, and little of it is positive. If a city council or a board of aldermen does a good job and things go swimmingly, the average voter tends to pay no attention. But when something goes wrong and that same voter has to swerve around a pothole or faces the prospect of diminished services, there is seldom much room for charitable sentiment.
I thought of this in the recent furor over pay increases for Roanoke City Council. Council voted this week to increase the pay for themselves by 28.5 percent and the pay for the mayor by 15 percent (a second vote later this month will have to finalize the deal). On the one hand, the actual amounts were modest in the overall scheme of things, and the argument was made that council members spend a lot of time and deserve better compensation. But on the other, the move clearly created some resentment in a time when city employees have received much smaller raises (if any) and when many voters are struggling to pay their own bills. At a recent public hearing 80 percent of the attendees protested the pay raise. Though that’s not saying much since only five people attended.
Being a historian, I started thinking of historical precedent for such a hubbub, and recalled an interesting case from 109 years ago. What happens when council decides to cut salaries?
The year was 1904, and the setting the idyllic republic of Salem. William T. Younger was mayor, and had been for as long as most people could remember. By all accounts, he was popular with the voters and was credited with doing a good job leading the town, then only about 3,400 people. He had guided the little municipality into the new century with such modern amenities as streetcar lines, an improved water system, a newfangled electricity plant and a commodious new school. He had twice tried to retire, and been twice convinced to stay by near unanimous acclamation.
1904 was an election year, and Younger ran for re-election unopposed, naturally winning by a sizable margin. When the new council met on Sept. 1 for a morning organizational meeting, they discussed municipal salaries and suddenly decided to reduce Younger’s annual pay by one-third: from $300 to $200. They kept their own compensation the same: $0. Or maybe they doubled their salary.
A hundred dollars doesn’t sound like much to us, and Younger, a successful druggist by trade, presumably didn’t need the money. But it was the principle of the thing. An enterprising reporter for the local paper was at the meeting, hustled to get Younger’s response, and got a story in the afternoon paper that very day. Townsfolk would read the story just hours before the council reconvened that night. And the story dropped a bombshell: Younger would resign in disgust.
The mayor had a point. He had been elected by a “complimentary vote” by an electorate who presumably knew and approved his salary. He considered the reduced paycheck a “personal matter” and evidence that council preferred another mayor despite his re-election.
Council scrambled to explain. They expressed the warmest personal regard for the mayor but simply felt the $300 salary too high. They reminded Salemites that they performed their duties with no compensation whatsoever. Attendance at the meeting that night was not recorded, but you can imagine a packed chamber ready to see the drama unfold.
Judge Wingfield Griffin, perhaps Salem’s leading citizen of the day and a personal friend of Younger, spoke to chastise council for the move, but also pleaded with his friend to reconsider his threat to resign. Council also tried to assuage Younger, assuring him that they merely acted in what they perceived the best interests of the town to be. One member assured the crowd that “no personal feelings on their part influenced our decision”; they merely thought the salary was exorbitant.
Perhaps mollified by the kind words, Younger indeed promised to give it more thought, and at the next meeting announced that he would serve out his term. But he declined to run for re-election in 1906, rounding out two decades of service as mayor and retiring while still enormously popular.
It’s a quaint story from a simpler time. Are there any lessons for today? Maybe not. But wouldn’t it be fun to see a council cut a mayor’s salary by $100 today and see if anyone rushes to his defense?
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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