OPINION: Handling of council clerk raise looked suspicious, ended in embarrassment for Mandeville

Jeopardized entire civil service pay package

Council clerk raise not part of salary committee recommendations: Zuckerman

Raise neither explained nor defended until after move to strike it

-Editorial-

The handling of a proposed raise for Council Clerk Kristine Scherer at the last Mandeville City Council meeting was an embarrassment, and it unnecessarily jeopardized a long-awaited and well-planned pay scale update for the city’s non-police, civil service employees.

Mandeville finally received a much-needed overhaul of police and civil service pay at the February 10th City Council meeting, resulting in significant raises across the board. The move — based largely on a city-sponsored salary survey conducted last year — puts Mandeville in a better position to retain and attract workers.

It was a big deal.

A salary survey committee, formed by Mayor Clay Madden, met four or five times from November to December, hammering out details for historic police and civil service pay changes.

The process was open and fair. It was a fine example of what happens when a city council and an administration work together for the greater good. The recommendations from that committee are what generated two ordinances — one for the police pay scale and the other for the civil service employees.

There was one big problem though. Scherer belongs to neither group. She is not a civil service employee and isn’t governed by either pay scale, yet for some reason the sponsor of the pay scale ordinances, Councilman at Large Rick Danielson, saw fit to tuck a nice 38-percent raise for Scherer into the civil service pay ordinance, which created a “poison pill” for others on the council, and rightfully so.

If you had read Ordinance No. 22-03 — for the civil service pay scale changes — you might not even have noticed that second primary clause wedged in there: “And to amend the salary of the council clerk.”

The Mandeville Home Rule Charter specifically says each ordinance must be limited to a single subject. This prevents a council member from tying a lesser-known and potentially more controversial item to a larger more popular measure with broad support, hoping other members won’t risk the political fight.

Article II, Section 2-11 or the charter reads in part:

Even by an amateur’s reading of the charter, a civil service pay scale change and a raise for one specific non-civil service employee are two separate things.

The title has two subjects, and the body of the ordinance is dealing with two different things. It’s painfully obvious.

To make the argument that because Ordinance No. 22-03 handles “raises” and they were trying to give Scherer a “raise” doesn’t pass the smell test. If that were the case then we could just have one big ordinance each meeting to handle whatever needs to be done under the subject “the people’s business.”

What’s more, city code specifically addresses how and when a raise for the council clerk is to be handled. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of wiggle room here except for maybe the date on which it happens:

Sources told Mandeville Daily that District II Councilman Skelly Kreller was involved in getting the council clerk raise added to 22-03.

So why did Danielson and Kreller do it this way?

What was really strange was the way in which Ordinance No. 22-03 was brought to the floor that night.

When an ordinance is brought to the floor, the council chairman reads the text of the subject and gives time to the sponsor to explain their proposal.

But with Ordinance No. 22-03, Danielson barely made mention of the fact that the council clerk raise was in there. His fumbling remarks gave those in attendance the impression that he himself wasn’t even sure it should be in there:

“It’s for non-police civil service employees, and as Mr. Zuckerman stated, the salary of the council clerk is part of this ordinance as well just because that really is a separate position you know from, uh, non-police civil service employees, so that’s why that’s part of this as well and being treated, you know, in this ordinance.”

And that was it. Those words — as mousy and conflicting as they were — was the first time the public at an open meeting had been informed or pitched the idea of a raise for the council clerk.

This wasn’t a pitch at all. Did he really want her to get the raise? He didn’t sound like it.

But he wrote the ordinance. Even if Kreller was a part of the effort, Danielson put his name on it.

Where was the bit about how great Ms. Scherer is, and that she deserves a 38-percent raise, and how this is good for Mandeville, and so on?

It only took District III Councilwoman Jill McGuire about five seconds after Danielson’s sheepish introduction to call a spade a spade, making a motion to strike the council clerk raise from Ordinance No. 22-03 so that the civil service pay scale changes would move forward.

Even when Madden proposed his “restructuring plan” early last year and was met with fierce resistance, he made a strong push and endured harsh questioning from several on the council, particularly Danielson and Kreller. Madden stood his ground, and arguably he eventually got the job done, even if it was through a different route.

And that right there, ladies and gentlemen, might be what this is really all about.

Was this a case of political retribution? Does that argument hold water?

Part of the mayor’s restructuring proposal in 2021 was to create a new position called “Director of Administration” with a salary of $90,000. He planned to tap mayoral Executive Assistant Trilby Lenfant for the new post.

Madden didn’t get his way, although he later found money in his salaries budget to give Lenfant a roughly $10,000 raise, bringing her to $83,827, about halfway to what would have been the salary for the ill-fated director of administration post.

When the council found out about this, Kreller demanded and got an opinion from the state Attorney General as to the legality of the raise. But the AG sided with Madden and even gently admonished the City Council for “ambiguity” in its budget ordinance, which allowed Madden to draw from a pool of salary money for Lenfant’s raise.

And there’s more evidence that this might have had everything to do with Lenfant and little to do with Scherer.

In Ordinance No. 22-03, Danielson included a side-by-side comparison for the proposed raise for Scherer with Lenfant’s pay:

Why on Earth would he bring Lenfant into this fight? It made no sense… unless there is more to this story than has been revealed to the public.

Based on on-the-record remarks by District III Councilwoman Jill McGuire and information from sources close to the situation, Scherer has made her case for a raise to council members privately and via email. Scherer reportedly expressed that she feels her current job duties are more akin to an executive assistant and not a clerk.

“There’s been new information that’s been brought to me, and I would like your assessment and I would like all the council members to see the JAQ (job assessment questionnaires administered as part of the 2021 salary survey). And there’s been lots of statements that Ms. Scherer’s emailed all of us and I’d like all of that addressed and I’d just would like it separate from the other employees,” McGuire said during debate at the meeting.

Fair enough. In the private sector, such lobbying is not only acceptable but often rewarded. So what that Scherer made a case to her “bosses” during a time when she saw that a number of other people were set to get big raises. Can’t really fault her for that.

It is worth mentioning, however, that group email chains present a huge problem for city councils everywhere, especially in Louisiana, which has one of the toughest open meetings laws in the country.

The instant there’s any kind of back-and-forth in a group email among a quorum of council members, there’s a serious problem as illustrated in this 2012 opinion by the Louisiana State Attorney General:

We’re not alleging this happened in Mandeville, but the City Council didn’t do themselves any favors with the way this was brought to the public. Perception matters in politics.

Mandeville Daily only found out about Scherer supposedly making her case to the council from off-the-record sources, which were indirectly corroborated by McGuire’s remarks at the meeting.

If Scherer’s alleged self-made comparison to the mayoral executive assistant was the real reason this side-by-side with Lenfant was included in the ordinance, why was that information not made public? Why didn’t Danielson just say that when he had the chance?

If this raise was so above-board, then why was it added to an unrelated civil service pay scale overhaul, an item that could have been sunk because of this poison pill?

This was McGuire’s finest moment as a council member. She quoted Section 2-7 of the City’s Code of Ordinances defining how raises and reviews for the council clerk are supposed to be handled. Section 2-7 spells out four conditions.

Maybe Danielson believed that sub-section (d) of Section 2-7 makes sub-sections (a), (b) and (c) null and void. Ordinance No. 22-03 only referenced sub-section (d). But City Attorney Elizabeth Sconzert didn’t seem to think so in her comments on the matter that night:

“I think the intent of the Section 2.7 is just to make sure there is a yearly evaluation for the council clerk and any changes are accounted for at that time.”

With that and a few other remarks she made at the meeting, Sconzert seemed to be saying that according to city code, you can give a raise to the council clerk before an evaluation takes place, and you can adjust the council clerk pay to meet market conditions.

So perhaps Danielson (and Kreller) is arguing that this particular raise is just a market adjustment, like with the police and civil service pay changes. That is indeed a valid point which can be debated.

But that’s the problem. There was no debate. There was no explanation… not until after McGuire moved to strike it.

McGuire was correct. Just like the charter seems to say, a raise for Scherer is a different subject than civil service pay scale changes.

Point, set and match, McGuire.

It was only when McGuire’s motion was about to be voted on did Danielson and Kreller speak up and mount any semblance of a defense for Scherer.

At one point, Danielson seemed to try to goad McGuire into altering her amendment in a manner that could only be described as unconventional.

“If this were to be amended, and pulled, that we would come back, and part of that, maybe Mrs. McGuire would consider, part of that motion would be that we would introduce an ordinance that addresses the salary of the council clerk and introduce an ordinance the first meeting in March,” Danielson said.

Sources close to the situation told Mandeville Daily they were surprised that Danielson even made such a suggestion — to put in one ordinance a “promise” to introduce another ordinance by a specific date — especially considering that as a council member, Danielson has the right to introduce ordinances or amendments himself. Why would he want McGuire to change her amendment?

But McGuire didn’t waiver. “They are two separate things and it needs to be separate,” she insisted.

If Danielson didn’t like her amendment, he could have voted against it and then offered his own. But he didn’t. In fact, he voted for McGuire’s amendment. And so did Kreller. Very telling.

Councilman at Large and Council Chairman Jason Zuckerman backed McGuire by pointing out that he served on the salary survey committee and a council clerk raise was never part of the discussions.

“I was on the salary survey committee… And we really didn’t discuss this. This proposal … is not really coming to the council with a recommendation that came out of the salary survey committee,” Zuckerman said.

The question here is not if Scherer deserves a raise. She does. Most on the City Council went on the record that night saying so. How big of a raise and when it should happen, that’s up to the council and should be debated in front of the people.

The recommendations concerning the police and civil service pay scales were handled in public meetings of the salary survey committee. It was no surprise when those items showed up on the agenda for a vote.

What was a surprise was that a council clerk raise was wedged into one of them when it was unrelated and had not been vetted in an open meeting.

Whether or not this was one-upmanship with the mayor for the way he handled Lenfant’s raise, the public is left to speculate because there is no official on-the-record evidence to the contrary — there was the side-by-side comparison to Lenfant in the ordinance and the dollar amounts were roughly the same.

But if the reality was that Danielson and Kreller were persuaded privately by Scherer that she really is more like an executive assistant and deserves the same pay as Lenfant, then they should have followed the appropriate path and made their case to the public.

There was plenty of time from November through January to have given a council clerk raise the attention it deserved which would have met the conditions spelled out in Section 2-7 of city code.

But they didn’t.

This was an unforced error, and sadly, it may have done irreparable harm to the city’s relationship with Scherer.

The citizens deserved better. Scherer deserved better.

-30-

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