Is a salary increase for elected officials ever popular?
So it's not at all surprising — nor particularly courageous — that legislators and other elected officials have created a variety of mechanisms to spare themselves from the politically delicate task of voting to raise their own pay.
For members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the solution was pegging their salaries to those of Superior Court judges. The supervisors fixed their pay at 75 percent of a trial court judge's base salary.
On Jan. 1, the judges got a 1.4 percent raise to $181, 292 a year, as approved by the Legislature.
The judges' increase triggered an identical 1.4 percent raise for Sonoma County supervisors, boosting their base salary to $135,969 a year, about twice the county's median household income.
Other cash compensation adds $15,000 or more to their gross pay, with health insurance and retirement benefits pushing their total compensation to more than $200,000 annually.
We recognize that the supervisors have a demanding, full-time job. Their portfolio includes law enforcement, health care, water delivery, public assistance and land-use issues in a county with 490,000 residents. They spend $1.3 billion a year and employ about 4,000 people.
Supervisorial salaries in Sonoma County are third among the nine Bay Area counties and solidly in the upper tier statewide. Yet they aren't way out of line considering their responsibilities, and the combined cost of this year's raise for all five supervisors is less than $10,000.
But the approach to setting those salaries is arbitrary, and it leaves the taxpayers without a voice.
There are plenty of shortcomings to the collective bargaining process and to the dubious salary surveys used in negotiating pay and benefits for county workers. But who other than the supervisors is guaranteed a pay raise every time some specified group of public employees receives one?
Would the supervisors approve such a formula for county employees?
Congress sets its pay and that of the president, though increases don't take effect prior to the next election. In California, a voter-approved commission determines pay levels for the governor, legislators and other state elected officials. San Jose has a commission that sets pay caps for the mayor and City Council. The salaries of other Sonoma County elected officials, including the sheriff and district attorney, are set by the Board of Supervisors.
Sonoma County isn't alone is pegging supervisorial salaries to those of Superior Court judges, though we see no obvious nexus.
The formulas vary among counties, and they have varied in Sonoma County as well, growing from 55 percent to 65 percent and, since 2008, to 75 percent.
Speaking in defense of the present system, Supervisor Shirlee Zane said "it takes the politics out of it."
Our system of government is by definition political, with leaders elected to make difficult choices. Ceding control of the salary process is ducking one of those choices.