Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

We all should have a comp board

Imagine if the job worked the same way as county government does. At the end of the year, not wanting to stand about with the tin cup in hand, you would ask a buddy to do you a solid - get together with your co-workers' pals, form a solid front, and march in to your boss to propose for a nice raise for you.

This is kind of how a compensation board works - a representative of each elected official's office meets to reach a majority agreement on proposed pay raises, which they then pitch to county supervisors, who can approve them, cut them by a like percentage across the board, or wad them up and shoot a jumper into the old waste can and everybody gets nilch.

It's an unusual system, and it has worked fairly well locally - because comp board reps have taken their responsibility quite seriously and done their homework, and supervisors have been judicious about what they approve.

I suppose that such a system is ripe for compromise; officials' reps might ask a healthy increase, anticipating that supervisors might in turn trim it down somewhat and leaders still get a fair cost of living bump in the mix with no one looking too grabby.

If there's a better way, one that is fair to all, allows for zero potential abuse and keeps the politics out of payroll any better than what we have, I guess I haven't heard about it.

Still, there are some issues with the comp board system.

One, at least in a partial, roundabout way, county superviors are still in the position to determine and vote in their own pay raises. I'm not saying anyone abuses this, just that it's awkward (so are Congress' pay raises.)

Two, there is no measure of merit in job performance tied to the wage increases. Remember, county offices are elected via a political system - the question isn't whether merit should be considered, but as with teachers, who could everyone agree on would be both qualified and unbiased to judge?

Three, it's tough for a group asked to represent these individuals to agree that one official perhaps deserves more or less than the others based on workload, additional skills aquired, additional responsibilty assigned, special achievements, longevity and so on. You tend to get a one-size-fits-all deal. Supervisors who do know the work of all the individuals can't provide rewards or penalties - they can't give more than the comp board asks for anyone, and cutting one would mean cutting all.

And, as local supervisors found out some years ago, zeroing out the raises tends to really upset the people who agree to serve on a comp board, and you soon don't have one.

Four, in at least some cases, I believe, pay rates for officials are used to determine pay for key deputies. It seems as though such people should be considered on their own value and merit. Regular county workers, of course, aren't guaranteed the same percentage or representation the office heads get.

One thing that I've always pondered about is the politically partisan nature of the county elections.

Of course, it makes sense for the county supervisors to stand for election - they are the policy makers.

So, of course, are city council members - they don't run as Republican vs. Democrat, though, and no one minds.

Perhaps this partisanship is needed in order to keep voters involved in democracy on the grassroots level. At least in this county, as soon as they are elected, supervisors seem to put partisan politics aside - you would be hard-pressed to identify Republican or Democrat in the board room, and that's good.

A county attorney is partisan-elected; a city attorney is simply appointed. (The county attorney is a prosecuter, the city one more of a legal advisor - so this perhaps makes sense.)

Some of the other positions make me wonder. Is it really necessary to bring partisan politics into the employment of a recorder or a treasurer? Would a Republican do those jobs any differently than a Democrat? Certainly, training and experience must matter more than political party in office/technical positions. After all, we don't vote on a county engineer.

I wonder most about the wisdom of having the sheriff's office be elected on a polticially-partisan basis.

Does a Democrat enforce speed limits differently than a Republican? And certainly, no sheriff worth his or her salt would treat a constituent differently based on that person's politics.

A police chief does similar work, and a state patrol lieutenant - but these jobs are not elected and certainly not political. They can concentrate on their duties and not be concerned with the time and expense of running for office every few years.

A partisan election does, of course, give the public a chance to remove someone they feel isn't doing the job, but so can a chief or patrol officer be fired at any time for due cause, not just in election year.

The best benefit, I suppose, is that every few years, the public gets the motivation to discuss the issues they see in an office and get a first-hand chance to let the candidates know what they expect from it, if they choose to.

As for the compensation board, I've heard several people complain that the proposed 8 percent increase for elected officials is high compared to "the real world." Very true, for a lot of us. You could also make the case that people with these skills could compete for higher-paying positions in the corporate world if they hadn't opted for public service.

It is a system with plenty of dings and dents and miles on it, but I have to say that it still seems to run okay.

In BV County, at least, we have by and large had exceptional people in our leadership positions, we have retained them, and we have handled pay pretty fairly.

We may have our concerns, but until something clearly better comes along, we can't really complain. Now, buddies, which one of you wants to chat with my boss for me?