Councilor Frank Baker seemed perplexed Monday when he asked a city lawyer what could happen if he and his colleagues on the Boston City Council go ahead and voted for a 29 percent pay raise this year, in what may be a violation of the state’s ethics law.
“I’m not a lawyer,’’ Baker said at a public hearing. “What would be the penalty for us?”
Henry C. Luthin, the lawyer, then slowly listed the maximum penalties: “You would be subject to . . . a fine of not more than $10,000, imprisonment in state prison for not more than five years, and/or in a jail or house of correction for more than 2½ years, or both,’’ he said.
“That’s the ceiling,’’ added Luthin.
Baker did not appear to like what he heard.
“For all we know, the state’s Ethics Commission would want to make an example out of the Boston City Council,’’ Baker observed.
Boston’s city councilors are in a quandary. Their decades-long practice of adjusting their salaries is now being challenged by the State Ethics Commission, which is considering whether the state’s conflict-of-interest law forbids municipal employees from participating in any matter involving their financial interest, including pay raises.
The issue arose earlier this month when Council President Bill Linehan proposed boosting his and his peers’ annual pay by $25,000 , to $112,500. Linehan argued that councilors’ pay has not increased in eight years and that a raise is long overdue. He contended the higher wages would be in line with recently increased pay packages for the fire and police commissioners.
“This is a small price to pay’’ for the work the council does, Linehan said at the hearing.
Councilors serve two-year terms in a city in which the mayor wields most of the power. The councilors’ responsibilities include approving mayoral appointments, creating ordinances, initiating special laws, and approving city spending, including their salaries.
“The practice of council adjusting salary by ordinance is the only mechanism available by law,’’ Linehan said. “Although it is difficult, we are accountable to the voters, and we are committed to this transparent process. . . . The longer we wait, the worse it gets.”
Linehan’s proposal is facing roadblocks from the Ethics Commission and Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
While councilors are allowed to vote on an increase, the law stipulates that any wage increase must take effect after the next council election. In Boston’s case, that would be after January 2016.
Walsh has said that any council pay raise this year would be illegal, a violation of the conflict-of-interest law, said his spokeswoman Kate Norton.
The mayor, who is returning from an 11-day trip to Ireland, must sign off on the measure, and so far, the mayor will not sign, Norton said.
“We’ve confirmed that the way it is written right now, unless it goes into effect January 2016, it would violate the state ethics law,’’ Norton said. “And the mayor can’t sign something that corporation counsel has advised is illegal.”
At the hearing Monday, Luthin strongly urged the council to delay the increase. “The easiest and clearest [thing to do] is to make the increase effective until after the election, so that any salary increase would be for the body and not for an individual councilor,’’ said Luthin, advising the council personally, not as a member of the mayor’s legal team.
Councilors Mark Ciommo, Timothy McCarthy, Josh Zakim, and Michelle Wu, who wants a civilian review panel, urged the council to explore other methods for addressing salaries in the future.
Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley renewed her pitch for another mechanism that allows accountability and transparency in the salary process. “In its current form, I cannot accept this proposal,’’ Pressley said. “It is simply too high.”
Benjamin J. Stuart, a researcher at the watchdog Boston Municipal Research Bureau, implored councilors to push for a revived Compensation Advisory Board.
The five-member panel is supposed to meet once a year and recommend salary increases, but the board has failed to produce any reports since 2006, said Stuart.
Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy argued that since its appointment, the board has had little oversight.
“What this illustrates is the fact the council has to fend for itself in the worst possible way because the Compensation Advisory Board doesn’t work for us either,’’ Murphy said.
Linehan vowed to press on. He said the council could technically vote on the matter at its weekly meeting Wednesday, but that is unlikely.
“What we want to do is . . . be as clear and open as possible [so] that our position is legitimately recognized,’’ he said. “These are conflicts. . . . We need to get some more clarity on that.”
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.