Councilmember calls salary increase ‘terrible optics, timing’
GAMBIER — First reading of an ordinance proposing to increase the mayor’s salary from $9,000 per year to $16,000 was criticized by Gambier Village Council President Betsy Heer on several fronts, touching off a divisive council conversation on the topic. No action was taken as it takes three successive readings on village ordinances before a vote on passage, unless one is passed as an emergency measure.
“I will tell you, the optics and timing of this are terrible,” Heer said, addressing her fellow councilmembers.’ She said her objections to the salary increase start with its proposed 78 percent salary hike for a part-time position. She said it looks “terrible” because the increase is being considered less than one month before the Nov. 5 election — and because it would specifically benefit councilmember Leeman Kessler, who is running unopposed for mayor. Kessler did not speak on the issue during the council discussion.
Heer proposed an amendment to the ordinance, to increase the mayor’s salary from $9,000 to $12,000, offering that the mayor’s salary could be increased again in 2020 or 2021 after the public has more time to weigh in. But she did not receive a second. A gradual increase in the mayor’s salary would help to avoid the appearance of conflict and impropriety, she offered.
“I would have less of a problem with the issue altogether if we had more than one person running for (the mayor’s) office,” Heer said.
Mayor Kachen Kimmell, who is not seeking a second four-year term, referenced a story in the Kenyon College newspaper, stating it was inaccurate to describe Kessler’s forthcoming ascension to the mayor’s position as “a personal request by me.” Kimmell — who keeps office hours one day per week and performs other duties, such as attendance at both ceremonial and strategic meetings as well as committee meetings in representing the village — said times have changed. The position has more responsibilities now than ever before, she offered, and needs to be line with what other village mayors make in comparably sized communities.
Kimmell also said “This conversation has been very pointed toward me,” and argued that whoever the mayor is, it should not be a Kenyon person anymore because there are too many conflicts.”
A Sept. 26 article in the Kenyon Collegian about Kimmell’s decision not to run for a second term read in part, “Kessler said he and Kimmell had been talking for some time about her successor, and that she had been essentially preparing him for the position from the start.” It also referenced Kimmell’s focus on “grooming a new generation of local leaders” as “the old guard is replaced with a new generation of incoming Gambier residents.”
Heer said it just does not look good to propose such a hefty salary increase for a position when, three months away from the new mayor taking office, one already knows who the beneficiary of that salary increase will be. Agreeing with Heer was councilmember Liz Forman, who said such an increase so close to the Nov. 5 election, with no possibility of even a write-in mayoral candidate to oppose Kessler, is “just terrible timing.”
The proposal to raise the mayor’s salary came from council’s Police and Personnel Committee, which met Sept. 26 and came to “unanimous” agreement that such an increase was justified given how much time the mayor’s duties require, and what mayors from comparably sized communities earn, according to the committee’s meeting minutes.
Councilmember Phil Brooks, a Police and Personnel Committee member, once again discussed the committee’s report as he does at each council meeting. He said the amount of hours the mayor spends in the job, about 20 hours per week, is significant and if it were averaged out on an hourly basis, would need a significant boost just to be at minimum wage. Mayors in comparably sized communities like Hiram and Clear Fork earn $15,000 to $20,000 annually, he said.
“Brooks suggested raising the salary to be in line with those numbers,” according to the Police and Personnel Committee meeting minutes. “Councilman (Juan) Pastor objected, saying he saw the position as one of public service and that in a community the size of Gambier, the mayor likely did not work more than 20 hours most weeks.”
During Monday’s council meeting, Pastor re-emphasized that given its small size of about 2,500 residents, including Kenyon students, Kenyon is smaller than many other communities it’s being compared to for a salary boost argument. He also said that to state the position responds to everyday issues like water leaks is not accurate because that is the duty of Village Administrator RC Wise, who was hired earlier this year.
Kimmell said she agrees that the hiring of Wise, given his experience as a village administrator in Hebron and other administrative experience, has been a boost in helping the village operate.
Fellow Police and Personnel Committee member Harold Ballard, however, said the proposed mayor salary increase avoids conflict because it will not apply to the current mayor.
In other actions, the village council removed an ordinance placed on the agenda to pass as an emergency ordinance upon first reading, which would have authorized the mayor to enter into a contract with EV United for the installation of a fast-charging Electric Vehicle Charging Station. The charging station, which would allow vehicles to become 80 percent charged within 30 minutes to an hour, according to EV representative Abby Roen, provides an AEP-Ohio grant of up to $99,405 to cover eligible costs, which include four years of maintenance.
However, councilmembers led by Forman centered the discussion around how the charging station would be better served from “being up on the hill” where businesses are located beside Kenyon College, and specifically offered that village-owned property on the north side of West Brooklyn Street, across from the lone gas station in the village, would be the ideal location.
It would take up about two of the existing on-street parking spaces to make that happen. Roen, however, said the AEP-Ohio grant is specifically for the placement of the charging station at the Gambier Community Center, which is located on Meadow Lane. Moving its location to a newly proposed site will involve cost adjustments, she said, which resulted in council tabling the item. It will likely return as a council agenda item next month, as the deadline for AEP-Ohio grant acceptance is in December.