Duluth Mayor Don Ness nixes pay raiseAfter a nearly sleepless night and some deep reflection over the breakfast table, Duluth Mayor Don Ness and his wife, Laura, called a news conference Tuesday morning. The Ness household announced it would turn down a $19,500 increase in annual pay.
By: Mike Creger and Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
After a nearly sleepless night and some deep reflection over the breakfast table, Duluth Mayor Don Ness and his wife, Laura, called a news conference Tuesday morning. The Ness household announced it would turn down a $19,500 increase in annual pay.
Despite a City Council vote Monday evening to boost the mayor’s annual salary from $78,000 to $97,500 — a 25 percent increase — Ness said he will refuse the raise.
“It’s been uncomfortable and a bit painful,” said Ness of the debate that has swirled around his pay this past week.
He chose to remain silent until the council acted, expecting that whatever the decision, it would provide a sense of resolution.
“There wasn’t that sense of relief I was hoping for,” Ness said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
In a Facebook posting, Ness said he was up until 3 a.m. wrestling over what to do.
“The issue seemed to put at odds the two most important things in my life: the well-being of my family and my responsibility to represent the people of Duluth,” he said.
Although the council had not taken up the issue of mayoral pay in 14 years, Ness said he would have turned down a pay increase no matter what its size. He wants any raise to take effect only after his second term is up, although he appreciated the council’s consideration.
“It’s been too long since this issue was addressed,” he said.
Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner, who led the effort to increase the mayor’s salary, agreed whole-heartedly, claiming that it wasn’t right to leave the mayor’s pay frozen at the same level for so long.
“Back in 2000, the mayor’s pay probably was at parity with other city employees, but now it isn’t, because the council didn’t do its job. That’s not going to be the way the council works going forward,” she pledged.
Gardner’s resolution called for the council to appoint a committee to look at adjustments to the mayor’s salary on an annual basis.
She noted that if the mayor’s pay had gone up in line with the raises afforded to unionized city staff since 2000, he would now be earning an annual salary of $103,740.
As for Ness’ decision to decline the approved pay raise, Gardner said she respects his wishes. But that doesn’t undo the council’s actions.
“There’s no disagreement between the council and administration,” she said. “The mayor’s salary is set by the council. But the choice to take it or not take it is solely his.”
Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery said the money Ness refuses simply will stay in the general fund. The council voted to make the raise effective Dec. 1.
City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud said she felt it was important the pay increase she and her peers approved Monday remain in effect, whether Ness chose to accept it or not.
“That’s going to be the salary, because for the good of the city, we need to have a competitive pay scale,” she said, stressing the importance of attracting strong candidates to run for mayor.
As the Nesses and their three children went through their morning routine Tuesday, they discussed how best to handle news of the council-authorized raise.
“We’re just thankful we have healthy and vibrant children,” Laura Ness said.
“We have been blessed in so many ways,” Mayor Ness said, explaining that he would have found it difficult to serve the community while accepting the raise. He said he couldn’t exactly explain why, but it didn’t feel right.
Ness felt a sense of relief after sharing breakfast with his family and reaching a decision that he said “reflects our values and service to this community.”
It bothered Ness to send his children off to school, knowing that some of their classmates’ families subsist on about as much as his proposed $20,000 raise would provide.
On Facebook, Ness also wondered whether accepting a raise would be consistent with some of the actions he has taken as mayor.
“Over the years, I’ve made a lot of tough and unpopular decisions that have asked for sacrifice from others to help solve our problems, and many in Duluth struggle with poverty or rising costs on a fixed income. I questioned if accepting a raise in this way would burden my ability to lead,” he wrote.
City Council President Patrick Boyle said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the mayor’s decision to decline a raise. He noted that local wages and salaries for many Northland residents have remained relatively stagnant since the recession hit in 2007.
Boyle said he supported the idea of substantially boosting the mayor’s pay but was uncomfortable acting so swiftly without more study and public deliberation.
Roger Wedin, director of policy for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said the size of the mayor’s proposed salary increase seemed reasonable, given what other city workers earn.
“I think the mayor is worth it. I think he has earned it. He has done good work,” Wedin said. “But I also appreciate his thoughtfulness and his concern about the appropriateness of receiving a raise at this time.”
Duluth City Councilor Linda Krug said the mayor shoulders a heavy burden.
“It’s a 24/7 position that involves a lot more than cutting ribbons. It’s a job that has evolved into really serving as the CEO of the city,” she said.