Of all the steps Pittsburgh City Council members could take, raising their own salaries is among the trickiest, requiring the highest degree of humility, even shame.

In this regard, the members of the city council failed spectacularly.

Nothing increases the insider’s perception like improper procedures and secrecy; the board engaged in both by setting a 6.3% raise for itself.

Recently, board chair Theresa Kail-Smith froze a proposed 22% salary increase “pending legal review.” In truth, the only review needed was a copy of the city’s bylaws charter and a dash of common sense.

Rather than walk away with their collective tail between their legs, the council boldly retreated into a private executive session at a special weekend meeting called by Ms Kail-Smith. Then, behind closed doors, they hammered a “compromise” between them: 6.3%.

Now City Comptroller Michael Lamb says the average raise given to city employees is 3%, but Ms Kail-Smith insists the city’s legal department has approved a figure twice that for her and these partner’work.

How council members pulled this off is unclear, as it happened during a closed session. At the very least, council members owe the public an explanation of how they arrived at 6.3%. Obviously they were aiming for the maximum they could get and not go to jail.

Incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto, who should have known, helped create this fiasco in December, when he included a Christmas present to the council in his final budget: a pay raise of about $16,000, or 22 %, going from about $72,000 per year to $88,000. Buried in a Byzantine budget, the post attracted little attention as the city awaited a new administration.

But it was obviously, obviously, beyond a shadow of a doubt a violation of the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter. This document, which is essentially the constitution of the city, reads, “No City elected official will receive a salary increase greater than the average percentage increase in wages and salaries paid to all City employees based on the previous year’s salary.”

City employees, of course, did not receive an average 22% raise. Neither do the townspeople, for that matter, the people the mayor and council members nominally represent.

While few observers noticed the article, council members surely did. And they surely knew it was illegal. And they surely accepted, until they were questioned by the local media.

For all that the good city council has done recently — a smart, deliberate response to the annexation of Wilkinsburg and a quick, thoughtful response to the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge — these shenanigans trump everything.

If the board members had played it that straight, they could have made a decent case that they’re underpaid. In Buffalo, their counterparts receive $75,000 and in Cleveland more than $80,000.

The public would probably have tolerated a modest increase, passed with transparency and modesty.

But not like this. Never.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



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