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Pay not underlying cause of candidate apathy

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August 20, 2013 | 10:10 AM
“Council gets pay increase.”

That headline in last week’s Regional News didn’t remain accurate for very long.

Last Wednesday — after last week’s paper went to press — Lake Geneva Mayor Jim Connors vetoed the pay raises the council had approved earlier in the week.

The idea will be considered again at the next council meeting. Overturning a mayoral veto takes six votes. Five council members voted for the raises last time — Gary Hougen, Ellyn Kehoe, Alan Kupsik, Dennis Lyon and Sarah Hill. Jeff Wall and Sturg Taggart voted against it. But Bill Mott was absent, so its eventual passage is far from a certainty.

Nonetheless, it’s worthy of discussion.

Pay raises for public officials is always a hot button issue.

In fact, some people probably didn’t even realize that members of the Lake Geneva City Council and the mayor actually get paid.

They do.

According to the ordinance that was passed — and then vetoed — future council members would get $4,000 a year vs. the $3,500 current council members are making. The next mayor would get a $1,500 raise to $7,000.

These would be the first raises for those elected officials since 2008.

I hope the current council members realize a lot of people haven’t had jobs much less raises in that time — and that’s the rub.

True, the total hit of $5,500 is barely a blip in the city’s $14 million budget, the amounts are within state averages for communities our size and I’m not saying the council members or mayor don’t deserve it. Doing the job well takes more work than anyone realizes until they get into it.

Plus I don’t think anyone on the current council is doing it for the money.

But as the mayor mentioned in his veto letter, percentage-wise the raises seem out of line: 14.3 percent for the council members and 25 percent for the mayor.

Connors specifically mentioned that his raise was too large.

The mayor, who rarely inserts himself into individual issues, may have been wise to veto it. At least it deserves more discussion.

As it stands now, it simply looks bad.

And appearances for any city government is important, especially during uncertain economic times.

Mostly, though, I don’t think it will draw in more candidates for the council as Hill suggested when she presented the pay increase idea.

It’s true that fewer people have run for city council the last few years, but I doubt money had anything to do with it.

I think the problem has been that people just don’t want to be personally demonized for the positions they take.

They don’t want their reputations torn asunder or the businesses they run boycotted.

To some degree taking criticism — from both the media and constituents — is part of the job.

But during the council wars of a few years ago, both sides went too far. Both sides let their emotions get away from them.

The disagreements became petty and personal.

And they taught a fundamental lesson in public discourse — those whatever-it-takes tactics just don’t work.

Everyone suffered, but no one — least of all the city — benefited.

As a result of that recent history, potential candidates have gotten gun shy.

While the current council has set a much different tone, the memory of those days is just too fresh.

Those who voted for the raises last week were doing what they thought was right for the city. So were those who voted against them. So was the mayor who vetoed it.

That’s how good governments run — office holders voting their conscience and living with what the majority decides.

Governments crash when people don’t accept that losing a vote isn’t the end of the world nor does it mean those on the other side are evil.

I suppose people have the right to respond the way they want to — just like people have the right to boo at sporting events.

But what constituents have to understand is that if they take that approach, fewer people will want to serve in public office.

This apparent candidate apathy isn’t about the money.

It’s about our inability to disagree without making it personal.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.


Tags: Staff Editorial

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