Constrained by state law, the Morrison County commissioners recently completed their annual dance with the county’s elected officials over pay. It was not a pretty sight.
Setting the pay of elected officials is always touchy. Some citizens believe all public employees are overpaid. Others believe the county can’t afford to pay a competitive wage. Since elected officials themselves set the pay for others, sometimes they position themselves more with the next election in mind than with what would make good public policy.
The issue is further complicated because no one can say with assurance what a fair wage is for an elected official. Those jobs are not for the faint of heart. Many people, indeed most, can hold onto a job simply by providing value to the organization and being diligent in their work habits. Elected officials, however, serve at the whim of the voters. Say “no” to the wrong person and suddenly public opinion turns and the former champion of the people finds himself looking for work, often at an age when it is difficult to find a new job.
Most voters want extremely qualified people in these elected positions, but don’t want to pay any more than necessary. Pay too little and top-notch candidates won’t run. Pay too much, and people run for the money instead of to serve the public. It’s a balancing act, and the correct result is not always obvious — especially since the pay rate is not set until after the election.
Under state statute, the county has to set the minimum salary for each elected official at its first meeting in the January before the election. In January 2014, the Morrison board set the minimum salary for all elected positions — at $7,000 annually. Because of the law, they are not able to set a reasonable minimum or even a range. This antiquated law needs to be changed.
The way the system works now is that people run for county office without knowing how much they are going to be compensated. Who else among us goes through a job application process and decides to accept a job without knowing what the pay is? Very few.
So then we are reduced to the spectacle of having our most important public officials — the ones we deem important enough to elect — coming before the County Board hat in hand to beg for a raise.
The County Board tries to fit the elected officials into the salary schedule they have for appointed officials. This has mixed results; the schedule gives much weight to tenure, and does not account for the fickleness of public opinion.
So it was that new Sheriff Shawn Larsen and new Auditor/Treasurer Deb Lowe took office earlier this month. Larsen is making 10.5 percent less than retired Sheriff Michel Wetzel and Lowe is making a whopping 17.9 percent less than former Auditor/Treasurer Russ Nygren.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to set the salary or at least a salary range for all elected positions before the filing period in June? That way candidates would know if the job is even worth their time. As it is, a minimum annual wage of $7,000 for full-time work breaks every minimum wage law on the books.
The lack of transparency does not help in attracting top candidates. The Legislature needs to fix this process. It’s too demeaning to our most important public officials, and it fails to serve the public’s interest well.