The salary-setting process for county and state elected officials works.
That was proven recently when the Thurston County salary commissioners decided not to award salary increases for courthouse officials for next year. It’s the second year in a row salaries for county commissioners, the sheriff, auditor and other independently elected officials have been frozen.
Similarly, salaries for the governor and statewide elected officials have stayed constant for two years.
The system works because it involves citizens with real-world experience. They understand the depths of the economic recession and how private businesses are suffering. Governing officials must share the pain experienced by the private sector.
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Setting salaries for elected officials has always been a contentious issue. In fact, the initiative with the most number of signatures in state history — 699,098 — was circulated in 1973. It set limits on salary increases for elected officials and judges. When Initiative 282 went before voters in November of that year, more than 80 percent of them voted to in support of the wage limits.
The quick signature campaign and overwhelming vote sent a huge message to state lawmakers.
And every time they considered salary increases for themselves and other elected officials, they were reminded of the citizen uprising. They took so much heat, in fact, that former House Speaker Wayne Ehlers in 1986 pushed a constitutional amendment creating a citizens salary commission. Under that constitutional amendment, the pay level set by the salary commission cannot be altered by lawmakers or others once a final decision is made.
The constitutional amendment passed in 1986, creating the Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. The commission consists of 16 unpaid citizen members selected by two methods:
• Nine members are randomly selected by the secretary of state from the rolls of registered voters, one from each of the nine congressional districts.
• The remaining seven members come from areas of specific expertise: higher education, business, professional personnel management, human resources, the law, and organized labor.
The citizen salary commissioners hold hearings around the state where they take testimony from citizens and elected officials. They then arrive at a salary schedule setting the pay for everyone from the governor to lawmakers, from the chief of the state Supreme Court to county District Court judges.
At their May 19, 2009 meeting, the citizen commissioners recognized the difficult economic situation the state was in and froze salaries for 2009 and 2010. In a statement they said, “The commission regrets the need to take this action. Future commissions will consider the long-term needs of the state and will make continuing salary adjustments to be competitive and attract citizens of the highest quality to public service.”
In 2002, county commissioners saw how well the citizens commission was working at the state level and decided to replicate the process for courthouse salaries. The Thurston County Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials was created.
The local commission has 10 members; six citizens chosen randomly from among registered voters in the county with the four remaining commissioners coming from business, human resources, law and organized labor.
Like their counterparts at the state level, the local salary commissioners recently opted to freeze salaries for elected officials for next year. Last year was the first time the commission did not give raises for the following year.
Sure, there’s some squawking when the citizen commissioners award salary increases during flush economic times. But it must be acknowledged that the citizens at both the state and county levels have shown restraint at a time of economic uncertainty. They have, through their reasoned decisions, helped build confidence in the difficult job of setting salaries for elected officials.