Mansfield municipal building

MANSFIELD -- Pay increases for Mansfield's elected leaders, scheduled to begin in 2022 and beyond after City Council approved them on a non-emergency basis in December 2019, have now been implemented, based on an "outside legal counsel" opinion.

Fourth Ward Council representative Alomar Davenport raised the issue during Tuesday's meeting after two members of his ward sent in public letters complaining about the move.

The city's decision to seek an outside legal opinion regarding the status of the pay increases -- an opinion that current council President Cliff Mears said arrived after council's most recent Dec. 15 meeting -- was not discussed during any public council meetings during 2020.

Mears said City Council had approved the increases and it took time to get the opinion from outside legal counsel regarding the timing.

"We really didn't go behind anyone's back," Mears said.

That opinion, according to Law Director John Spon, "strongly" advised the city that Ohio's 5th District Court of Appeals had ruled such approved pay increases could be implemented, despite the lack of emergency requirement. The raises are apparently retroactive to an unspecified date in 2020.

The name of the law firm providing the opinion was not shared during the online City Council meeting on Tuesday.

Davenport said he was concerned the move could create a precedent that would allow the city to "side step" legislation not approved as an emergency whenever the administration deems it necessary.

The increases, approved in 2019 by City Council on a 5-3 vote, cover Spon, Mayor Tim Theaker, Finance Director Linn Stewart and all council members.

At the time, it was announced that since the measure failed to get the six votes needed to pass as an emergency, that it would not take effect in time to improve the compensation of the newly re-elected mayor, law director, finance director or council members who began new terms in January 2020.

Then-outgoing council members Don Bryant (At-Large), Jeff Rock (2nd Ward) and Walden "Butch" Jefferson (4th Ward), all of whom were in their final council meetings, voted against the increases. All three members said they would have supported smaller increases.

The pay hikes were supported by Mears (then-At-Large), David Falquette (then-1st Ward), Jon Van Harlingen (3rd Ward), Jason Lawrence (5th Ward) and former council member Jean Taddie (6th Ward).

Elected officials in Mansfield had their pay frozen in 2009 when the city slipped into fiscal emergency. The city climbed out of fiscal emergency in 2014, but the freeze had remained in place.

Since the measure was not approved as an emergency, it was determined the increases would go into effect for council members who are elected and take office in January 2022 and for the mayor, law director and finance director elected to take office in 2024.

With the increases, City Council members earn $8,311 annually. The mayor is paid $91,775 annually, while the law director and finance director earn $85,651.

Letters from residents Anna Durtschi and Sarah Fernandez criticized the pay increases being moved up without public discussion.

"This is disappointing on many levels. First, that council would go behind the backs of the community to give themselves raises early, without emergency clauses. This is a huge disrespect to the citizens of Mansfield who expect City Council Members to act in accordance with the legislation that they vote on," Fernandez wrote.

"While there never seems to be any money for community improvements, Council has managed to find not just enough money for future raises, but enough money to pay for raises for the Council for the last two years?" Fernandez asked. "This is a shame, a failure, and a slap in the face to the people of Mansfield."

Durtschi wrote, "I find it difficult to express myself without getting angry at the way you have granted yourselves raises, retroactively against the will of the citizens of which you were elected to represent. Repeatedly we are told the city cannot afford to provide swimming pools or splash parks on the north end of town or that we do not have enough snow plows to take care of our city.

"There is such an obvious lack of care when it comes to snow removal when one drives from Mansfield to the City of Ontario city limits that it’s disgraceful. But here you are giving yourself raises, retroactively at that, and working overtime to give justification for this action knowing all along that was not what was voted on. That money needs to be returned immediately and put into the general fund for services to the taxpayers that put it there. It seems we need an outside source to oversee this current situation as I now feel, due to your actions, you are not trustworthy," Durtschi wrote.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"