Larry Di Giovanni/News   Leeman Kessler, who is running unopposed for mayor of Gambier and today becomes mayor-elect, abstained from Monday evening’s village council vote regarding the mayor position’s salary increase.

Larry Di Giovanni/News
Leeman Kessler, who is running unopposed for mayor of Gambier and today becomes mayor-elect, abstained from Monday evening’s village council vote regarding the mayor position’s salary increase.

GAMBIER — Another fiery debate ensued during the second reading of Gambier Village Council’s proposed ordinance to raise the mayor’s salary from the current $9,000 per year to $16,000, this time including an actual vote to amend the increase to $12,000 while involving the city solicitor, Clinton Bailey, and Kenyon College’s chief business officer, Mark Kohlman, in the fray.

It takes three readings for a Gambier ordinance to pass unless done so as an emergency measure. The third and final reading of the ordinance, and its deciding vote, is scheduled for Dec. 2. If passed, the mayor’s position — a part-time one, in which current Mayor Kachen Kimmell said she works an average of 20 hours per week — would earn $16,000 annually starting in 2020. The proposed increase of 78 percent, if adopted, means the mayor of Gambier would earn more than twice what any fellow mayor in Knox County earns, the closest being the mayor of Fredericktown. Its mayor currently earns $7,950, an amount set to increase to $8,700 next year.

As she did during the first ordinance reading Oct. 7, Councilmember Betsy Heer proposed an amendment, seeking to have the mayor’s salary set at $12,000. This time, a vote moved forward as she received a second from fellow Councilmember Liz Forman. The two had lambasted the ordinance during its October reading, offering that the “timing” and “optics” of the proposed increase were terrible because it came less than one month before today’s November election — and with just one candidate, first-term Councilmember Leeman Kessler, running for mayor.

The council consists of six voting members and Mayor Kimmell — who decided not to run for a second mayoral term — only voting to break a tie. With Councilmember Juan Pastor on excused absence, the vote was two for, two against, and one abstaining on Heer’s amendment, with Kimmell not voting. Heer and Forman voted for the amendment, with councilmembers Phil Brooks and Harold Ballard opposed.

Also not voting on the issue was Kessler, who today will become the mayor-elect of Gambier is running unopposed for the position. Kessler said later he expects to continue to abstain from the vote “unless someone changes my mind.” The News also asked Bailey if Kessler should continue to abstain during the final vote in December due to potential conflict-of-interest in being the first recipient of the increased mayoral salary were he to vote. Bailey answered that his advice to Kessler, if asked for, is “privileged.”

Following the meeting, Forman noted that fellow councilmember Pastor, who is not seeking re-election, has previously opposed the mayor salary increase, offering in October that he viewed it as a political elective position where public service should be its focus, not salary. He also said the amount of hours the mayor works fluctuates. Though she said she works an average of 20 hours per week, Kimmell’s posted office hours are Wednesdays only.

Should Heer propose her amendment of a $12,000 salary again during the Dec. 2 meeting — and should Pastor join Heer and Forman in voting for the amendment — it would likely pass by a 3-2-1 margin, given Kessler’s stated intent to abstain. Kimmell, in what will be her final meeting as mayor, only votes if there is a tie.

During council debate on the topic Monday evening — with Bailey requesting full discussion on the issue, one reason being he missed the Oct. 7 ordinance first reading — making his personal feelings known was audience member Kohlman. As Kenyon’s chief business officer the past 11 years, he gives brief Kenyon business-related updates at each monthly village council meeting. Although Kohlman said the “timing” of the ordinance was “a little odd,” coming less than a month before today’s election, he said he believes the increase for the mayor to $16,000 is warranted because he has seen mayoral responsibilities grow since taking his job. Kohlman also said in his experience, he has seen the village council give salary increases to employees where the timing was not at issue, the council just gave the increases. This mayoral increase involves perception related to timing, he said, but is, in fact, a well-justified increase.

Those comments drew fiery responses from Heer and Forman, who said that village council discussions on raises for employees were carefully planned out and involved discussions on how such raises, such as yearly 3 percent pay hikes, would be absorbed by the village budget. Forman said she has the meeting minutes to prove those discussions were well thought out and deliberate. But Kohlman offered that such discussions took place with little or any citizen involvement, as they do now. Kohlman noted he is often one of the only audience members to attend village council meetings. Heer said it is not the council’s fault the public chooses mostly not to attend meetings.

Councilmembers Ballard and Brooks again made business-related arguments as they did in October, offering that the mayor is a part-time position that should earn what some employees would average out to on a part-time basis. Ballard previously used the example of Amazon and Target employees who are soon to earn $15 per hour.

This time, Ballard said the mayor should at least earn as much as an assistant manager at Aldi’s grocery store. They make decisions, as the mayor does, but earn $38,000 per year, he said, noting from a recent job opening he saw posted. That would mean a 422 percent salary increase for the mayor, which the public would decry as excessive, he said. At half that amount, $19,000 — as the mayor’s job is a half-time (part-time) job, that would be $19,000, which is still 211 percent more than the mayor of Gambier makes, he said. Brooks said the mayor should earn at least as much as the village’s recently hired utility clerk — who earns $16 per hour and is set to increase to $17 hourly once she passes her performance review.

But Forman said it has always been the case that due to public service commitment, villages do not pay salaried, full-time staff at the rate of pay they would pay the mayor or any elected position. If mayors were paid as such, they would need to start diligently logging their hours worked. Forman said that is not what mayors and other officials are in the habit of doing — logging in their hours — and so should not be the case when determining the salary of the mayor this time.

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Larry Di Giovanni: 740-397-5333 or and on Twitter, @mountvernonnews



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