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State, city wary of Boston City Council pay hike

A proposal by City Council President Bill Linehan would give himself and fellow councilors a 29 percent pay increase.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File

A proposal by City Council President Bill Linehan to give himself and fellow councilors a 29 percent pay increase this year is running into major roadblocks with the State Ethics Commission and the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

The commission is challenging whether the councilors’ move to grant themselves a pay hike would amount to a violation of the state’s conflict-of-interest law.

The issue arose after Linehan filed an order Monday for a $25,000 pay raise for the councilors. The increase, which would put their annual salaries at $112,500, would take effect immediately if passed by a simple majority of the 13-member council and signed by the mayor.


A hearing and vote will be set soon, Linehan said.

The commission is prohibited under the law from commenting on cases it may or may not be considering. But Linehan told councilors at their weekly meeting Wednesday that he was contacted by the commission’s general counsel this week.

RELATED: Linehan proposes 29% raise for City Council

According to Linehan, the lawyer challenged the councilors’ ability to grant themselves pay raises. The state’s conflict-of-interest law prohibits municipal employees from participating in or voting on matters in which they or their family members have a financial interest, including pay raises, according to the commission’s website.

But some municipal workers have benefited from a workaround stemming from a 1987 case in which the commission allowed a city council to set its own pay raises, but only if they took effect after the next council election.

Following that precedent, Boston would not be eligible for a raise until after the 2015 election.

Linehan said he has asked that a representative from the commission appear before the council to help explain the law. But he emphasized that the standard practice on the council has long been to vote on their own pay raises and that the practice has never been challenged.


“As far as I understand it — and I’m not a lawyer — this is the only mechanism that we have to institute a raise for elected officials,’’ Linehan said after the meeting. “There is no other. So the Ethics Commission has noted to us that this could be a conflict. We’ve asked them to come down and explain that.”

Walsh administration officials said the commission had also called their office, prompting them to agree that a pay increase now would be inappropriate.

“The City of Boston’s corporation counsel has confirmed that a vote for a council pay raise, unless it takes effect January 2016, would be a violation of the state ethics law,’’ said Kate Norton, the mayor’s spokeswoman.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of the fiscal watchdog Common Cause Massachusetts, said she supports an open process that allows the public to have a say in any future pay raise on the council. She said she hopes the council implements an increase after the next council election.

“What’s important is having a process that is open, ethical, and transparent,’’ Wilmot said. “Those principles mean delaying the effective date of any raise until the next election.”

Linehan, a South Boston district councilor, drew criticism and some praise when he proposed the pay raise. He made his case during the council meeting Wednesday in which he noted that city councilors in Chicago, Seattle, and New York all have annual salaries well over $100,000 compared with Boston councilors’ salary of $87,500.


Acknowledging the awkwardness of raising the pay hike issue, Linehan argued that in the previous eight years there were just three salary adjustments for councilors, raising their pay to $62,500 in 1998, $75,000 in 2002, and the current salary, approved in 2006.

Linehan added that the pay hike would be in line with recently approved pay packages for both the police and fire commissioners, both of whom earn more than $200,000 annually.

Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley argued that councilors should evaluate pay raises in the same way they would with other municipal workers. She urges more openness in the system. “It is clear that we need a system that is transparent, that has the highest form of accountability to the taxpayers of this city who pay our salaries, and [that also has] predictability’’ in the amount of the raise, Pressley said. “This is an opportunity for us to discuss the process for councilor raises.”

Councilor Frank Baker of Dorchester, who favors the raise, said he did not run for office because of the pay but because he wanted to be of service in the city. “I know that my job is not a part-time job,’’ Baker said.“Most of the people who are saying this, they don’t know what we do.”

Related coverage:

Linehan proposes 29% raise for City Council

Hefty raises could be in line for City Council

Adrian Walker: Do city councilors really deserve a raise?


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com or on Twitter @meghanirons.