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Salary Controversy Shakes Up City Hall

For the last few months, City Council members and local residents have complained that municipal services coordinator Sherril Huff-Menees’ annual salary was too high.

As of last week, she was earning $81,260 a year, slightly under Mayor Cary Bozeman’s salary of $82,796.

What makes Huff-Menees’ salary stand out is the raise of $26,624 she received within the first 10 months of her employment.

On Tuesday, March 25, Bremerton’s finance director Michael Wilson declared her salary will be rolled back to $68,226 annually because it violates chapter 2.50 of Bremerton’s Municipal Code.

The code states if a city employee in Huff-Menees’ classification receives a new job description and a wage to match, it must be approved by City Council. That didn’t happen in Huff-Menees’ case.

Bozeman and the City Council have quarreled over the title of her position, job description and salary nearly since the day she started on Feb. 1, 2002.

But there is an even deeper problem under the issue. When the city violates the BMC, it gets a black mark on its audit report. According to Michael Stephenson, the city’s auditor, some investors interested in buying property or starting projects in the city look at the audit reports and make decisions not to invest if the city has a number of blemishes.

“Traditionally, what we strive for is a clean audit report with no comments on it,” Stephensen said.

Huff-Menees calls the latest focus on her job distracting and disheartening, but Wilson said rolling back her salary is necessary.

“My honest description of this is that there were a lot of little steps the city administration took that never got finalized by the Council. Some errors we are trying to work on fixing. The code is very clear. We need to step up to the plate,” Wilson said.

Huff-Menees was originally hired at $54,636 per year. She recalls the day the mayor asked her to join his staff.

“He said, ‘I need someone working with me that understands the political arena and this community, and has the trust of the public, and I can’t think of a better person to do that,’” Huff-Menees said.

Huff-Menees was previously a District 7 City Council member, as well as serving as the Council president between 1994-1996.

Under previous mayors Lynn Horton and Louis Mentor, Huff-Menees’ position of municipal services coordinator existed, but Bozeman wanted to change the job description to make it more involved in management and leadership duties, such as a deputy mayor or chief of staff.

On Aug. 1 he gave a budget committee made up of Council members Cecil McConnell, Eric Younger and Mike Short an edited job description for the municipal services coordinator position.

Short recalls reviewing the mayor’s first updated job description for Huff-Menees. It detailed some of the work that she was doing outside the job description of municipal services coordinator.

“The discussion evolved,” Short said. “We talked about what might be an appropriate solution.”

Cecil McConnell said, “The three of us came up with (an annual salary for her) of $66,000, but it never came back to full council for approval so I never gave it any more thought,” he said.

At the Aug. 14 meeting, the full City Council ratified a budget adjustment that included Huff-Menees’ salary and a confirmation for Gary Sexton’s position as economic development director.

At the time, Huff-Menees’ position was listed on the amendment as band 17. Council members Short and McConnell were under the impression that her salary would be set at the suggested $66,582.

But Bozeman, human resources director Carol Conley and former city treasurer Rich Hanna signed a salary adjustment for band 17 rate 8, which equated to a salary of $79,121. Short said that was the Council members’ mistake for not looking more closely at it.

A couple months later, Huff-Menees was awarded a cost of living adjustment (COLA) along with the rest of the city’s staff, so her salary bumped to $81,260. Now that her salary has returned to the $66,582 mark, it actually bumps to $68,226 because it includes the COLA.

City attorney Roger Lubovich calls the original decision to escalate Huff-Menees’ salary a mistake, but he said it is not his responsibility to decide salaries.

“It was sloppy on all our parts, but it wasn’t intentional,” said Lubovich.

He serves as legal support to the City Council, but even Lubovich hired a secretary in violation of the BMC this year. It was just something that slipped under the radar, he said.

Besides Huff-Menees, 15 other city employees have been hired without Council approval in violation of BMC 2.50 over the last nine years, according to Lubovich.

In the last few months, city residents Del Knauss and Helen Miller grew vocal about the matter of Huff-Menees salary.

Knauss’ interest piqued when he observed annual city budget proceedings in August. When he initially saw the cuts that were being made to the budget, he suggested cutting Huff-Menees position entirely. Later, he fumed about her raises.

“(Her salary increase) was all accomplished while the mayor’s 2003 budget proposal called for cuts in fire and police personnel, and for the citizens to pay for the privilege of parking in front of their own houses,” Knauss said at the March 19 City Council meeting.

After Knauss found out Huff-Menees’ salary, he filed a public information request to find out why she was given a $26,624 increase in 10 months and who approved it.

“It sends one hell of a message to the other employees of the city,” said Knauss. “None of the other employees received this type of pay raise.”

Knauss has been an active resident interested in city government affairs for the last 18 years.

Helen Miller, another longtime city government watchdog, agreed with Knauss and also stood up at recent City Council meetings to express disgust.

“My concern is with the law,” said Miller. “Lawsuits come from things like this.”

Also during the March 19 City Council meeting, Miller said city attorney Lubovich “complicitly condoned” the actions surrounding Huff-Menees’ pay increases.

“The most disturbing part to me is that there is a perception that there was an intent to deceive them,” Huff-Menees said, referring to the City Council.

Huff-Menees acknowledges it has been hard to take all the flack since she started in her position. She says that it is true that some people in the city expect her to be everywhere at once, but like the mayor, she cannot be.

Bozeman said it is necessary to have Huff-Menees in a position higher than municipal services coordinator.

“She has been active in the community for 25 years,” Bozeman said. “Her knowledge and resume speak for themselves. She was hired for her qualifications. She is a trusted advisor. You have to have someone in your office to delegate some authority to.”

Bozeman said he is running a $120 million public corporation as the mayor of Bremerton, and he cannot do it alone.

“Sherril deals with many of the everyday issues we have here, so I don’t have to work every decision that comes in the office. My number one goal is the revitalization of downtown.”

Still, McConnell says he is not wholly satisfied. He will “get off their backs,” he said, when Huff-Menees’ salary is moved back to Band 11, rate 4, which is $55,996.80.

“Every citizen that has talked to me about it thinks it (Huff-Menees’ salary) should be put back where it belongs,” he said. He has talked to more than a dozen citizens about the issue.

Next up, Wilson will present to the City Council at a monthly study session on April 2 an updated job description for Huff-Menees. If they approve it, a salary survey will be done to match.

Bozeman said he is through arguing about the issue. He has made his recommendation to the City Council and does not want to spend more time on it.

“Whatever the Council decides I will certainly abide by,” he said.

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