2-21 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

So we’ve come to this? Put enough money on the table and maybe you’ll get the right person. Swing a big enough carrot, and hope for a herd of horses.

We’re not talking about George Steinbrenner, either. We’re talking about the five members of the Demopolis City Council.

The council agreed Thursday to hike the salary of the next mayor from $18,000 to $30,000. Austin Caldwell — who has held the position for 18 years and made an annual salary of $9,600 for 14 of those years — won’t seek re-election this August.

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So why the pay hike? Here’s the council’s reasoning:

In the exact words of council members and citizens alike, “We don’t know how lucky we’ve had it with Austin Caldwell as our mayor.”

Caldwell is one of those people who lives within his means. What are those means? Well, it’s really none of our business. But for lack of a better phrase, money apparently doesn’t rank at the top of Caldwell’s concerns.

Because of that, he’s been able to work 60 hour weeks for the past 18 years serving our city as mayor. He’s also ready to play a little more golf and take care of his dear wife, which means we need to find ourselves a new mayor.

Which brings us back to the reason for the mayoral pay raise. Council members have watched Caldwell do an immaculate job of running this city for as many terms as they’ve been in office. They know he’s not a part-time mayor — as the current salary indicates — and they desperately want someone who will match Caldwell’s vigor for the job.

Most people don’t have the financial security Caldwell has. So if there were a person out there who wanted to run for mayor, the thought would fade about as fast as that $1,500 monthly stipend.

Thomas Moore began the discussion Thursday when he engaged other council members with the idea of raising the mayor’s salary. Moore suggested the pay increase to $40,000 a year. Willard Williams suggested $45,000. Ronnie O’Neal really didn’t care, while Mike Baker and Woody Collins pulled out the butchers knife and cut the growing carrot back a bit.

Moore’s point in raising the salary was this: You eliminate about 98 percent of the public from seeking office when you offer a salary of $18,000 for what amounts to a full-time job. Old Sam down at the factory can’t pull the moonlight shift, take a shower, and then meet the governor at the airport for a four-hour cruise through town. Nope, the only way Sam could serve as mayor would be to quit the factory job and survive on $1,500 a month before taxes.

Moore wasn’t taking a shot at Mike Grayson — the only candidate to announce for mayor so far. Instead, Moore felt an increase in pay would lead to an increase in candidates — a necessity for stimulating campaigns and good government.

All other council members agreed, not out of spite for Grayson, but out of realization that $18 grand limits the candidate field to the city’s elite population.

I happen to agree with Moore on this one. I know Mike Grayson, and I like the guy. But back when Grayson and I first talked about his intentions to run for mayor, I threw out the name of a possible opponent who has since been named head of our city’s Chamber of Commerce.

Grayson’s comments were blunt. They were dead on, too.

“Steel sharpens steel,” he said.

A candidate who runs unopposed doesn’t have to face the bright lights of an election. That candidate doesn’t have to tell us too much about his or her plans for the city. But throw in a political opponent and you’re forced to enunciate your thoughts and spend a little more of your money.

Suppose there were four other candidates running against Grayson, and suppose Grayson still won. In the process of the campaign, Grayson would only become a better mayor. We’d have something to hold him to, and he’d have promises and ideas to fulfill.

With that line of thinking, the Demopolis City Council did the right thing. They raised the pay scale with the hopes of raising the candidate pool.

So here’s my only question: Why’d you stop at $30,000? Would any person making more than $30,000 resign to run for mayor?

There are some who would — with the emphasis on “very few.” The tasks of the job far exceed the pay. And if $18,000 narrows the field of candidates to the “elite,” then $30,000 narrows the field to the “elite” and the lower-middle class. Anyone who makes between $30,000 and $100,000 won’t run for mayor; thus you’ve eliminated the majority of our citizens.

If you want a full-time mayor who administers an “industry” of nearly 100 employees (which the city has), then pay the mayor what a CEO would make. If you want a mayor who will donate his time for the good of the city, pay him $5,000 and hire a city manager.

Here’s what I think: We don’t know how good we’ve had it with Austin Caldwell at the helms.