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Razor-Thin: Town Meeting OK's Higher Clerk Salary by Three Votes

Compromise amendment splitting the difference goes down to defeat after debate.

The third time was, in fact, the charm for Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman on the final night of Belmont's 2012 Town Meeting.

On a night where more than a third of Belmont representatives went missing, the town's legislative body approved a 25 percent increase to Cushman's salary after defeating an amendment to lower the salary stated in the Town Meeting warrant by the narrowest of margins, 97-94, on a standing count.

Cushman will now earn $78,216, up from her current salary of $62,400.

The Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting's financial watchdog and which set the salary at $60,000 in 2010, recommended in April Cushman be paid $66,000 in fiscal 2013.

Yet the Committee withdrew its recommendation before last night's vote in favor of the amendment presented by member Robert McLaughlin.

Had two representatives switched their votes, the amendment would have passed, setting Cushman's salary at $68,720.

The victory comes two years and in the third attempt by town officials to peg Cushman's salary to a grade level her supporters believe fairly reflects the skills and work she performs as compared to other clerks in comparable towns.

Last year, Town Meeting voted 127-110 to accept an amendment by the Warrant Committee to increase Cushman's $60,000 salary by four percent.

The vote defeated a move approved by a majority of the Board of Selectmen that would have increased Cushman's salary to $72,499 or a 21 percent jump.

Unlike the past two votes, Cushman's allies were armed with a study prepared by a human resources consultant indicating the clerk's salary should be slotted within a Grade 18 compensation range.

Under current state standards, a Grade 18 salary is between $70,000 and $98,000.

Cushman's new higher salary was pegged at that amount through the efforts of former temporary Town Administrator Richard Kelliher who said at the time his senior staff be paid on performance and at a level comparable with others in the same field.

In addition, Diane Crimmins, the town's human resources director, said earlier this year that Cushman's fiscal 2012 salary placed her in a Grade 13 range, much lower than any other clerk from a similar sized town.

Last night, Town Meeting first heard from Precinct 2's McLaughlin who described last year's debate on the Town Meeting floor as "very unseemly."

While he remains convinced of his earlier opinion, McLaughlin said now that he sits on the Warrant Committee, he can now see the analysis from the committee has "a lot of merit" as does Crimmins' work.

Rather than having to choose between the two competing figures, McLaughlin's amendment would "split the difference exactly down the middle."

"So I hope that this is a consensus that people can live with," said McLaughlin. "I hope we can get by this tonight without it turning into a personality contest ... and we do something they can't do in Washington and that is compromise once in a while."

Elizabeth Allison, Warrant Committee chairwoman, said the amendment represents a consensus between the Committee and Selectmen.

"Next year will be better," said Allison on setting senior salaries with the inclusion of a comprehensive salary survey for all department heads and senior staff, the appointment of a new Town Administrator and a new set of incentives – such as a program that awards non-union personnel for promoting innovations in their departments or town-wide – that will reward managers for performance on the job.

It did not take long for opponents to the amendment to be heard as Martin Cohen from Precinct 3, said when he retired 22 years ago from Arthur D. Little, he was being paid $66,000 "and I didn't run a department." At "$78,000 and change," the clerk is underpaid, he noted.

Precinct 8's Kathleen Baskin said a decade ago the town determined the clerk should be a Grade 18 position, which at its lowest limit is still more than what was proposed in the amendment.

The town has more than enough information after two year to determine what the Town Clerk should be paid, said Baskin, adding that no representative or committee "micromanaged" any other salary in the town's $84 million budget other than that for the Cushman's.

"Do we want to kick the can down the road a little bit further? I think we should do what we should have done two years ago ... and pay our Town Clerk what our town leaders already said our town clerk deserves," said Baskin.

Joe Connolly of Precinct 5, said Mel Kleckner, the former Town Administrator, wanted to prevent salary discussions "like this" by placing the position in a specific pay range.

Connolly said last year he "sat quietly" after being told that there would be a compromise this year.

"To quote the famous Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again," he said.

Warrant Committee member Noreen Millane, also representing Precinct 2, said she favored the amendment noting that two years ago, the Committee took on an extensive study of the clerks positions in nearby similar-sized towns and came up with a starting salary of $57,000 and "ramped it up to $60,000" which was approved by Town Meeting.

Last year, the committee once again reviewed the same analysis and the committee's $2,400 increase was given a thumbs up by the representatives.

"This year, it comes down to a 25 percent increase," said Millane, who said her subcommittee that reviewed the general government budget – which includes Town Clerk's office – once again went over the information and determined that it could support McLaughlin's $68,720 split difference amendment.

She said "it's very disheartening" that new separate data was being presented so late in the day and not at the five general government subcommittee meetings open to the public.

"I really wish this would have come forward earlier so we could analyze the data and discuss it and have some useful dialogue and not be blindsided," she said.

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