Jun 13


A possible problem with City Hall pay raises

The Common Council has approved big salary increases for city elected officials, including themselves. An attorney and transparency advocate questions the legality of the process.

Buffalo’s Common Council voted 5-to-3 Tuesday to give pay raises to themselves, the mayor, the city comptroller and the nine elected members of the city school board.

A commission empaneled by the Council in April recommended the 12.63 percent raises for city elected officials and 87 percent pay raises for school board members. The increases will cost taxpayers $254,410 per year. 

The new salaries are as follows:

  • Mayor: $178,518.55 — a boost of $20,018.55.
  • Comptroller: $134,592.85 — a boost of $15,092.85.
  • Common Council member: $84,472.50 — a boost of $9,472.50.
  • Board of Education member: $28,000 — a boost of $13,ooo.

But a good government group has been warning Council members for more than a month that the process by which the raises were awarded flouted the city charter. And the president of the New York Coalition on Open Government — attorney Paul Wolf — all but promised a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Council’s actions.

“If you go forward with moving on the recommendations, I think there will be a legal challenge,” Wolf, a former Council chief of staff, told the Council Finance Committee on May 23. 

“And I think you could possibly lose that legal challenge in court.”

Wolf said the coalition took no position on whether the proposed raises were reasonable or deserved. Rather, it objected to the process by which members of the Citizens Salary Review Commission were chosen back in April. He said the Council violated the section of the city charter that created the commission, describes its duties and governs its actions.

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The commission was created in 1979 and modified in 1999, in part to inoculate elected officials against the appearance of self-dealing when it came to determining their pay. The section of the charter creating the commission sought to accomplish that in three ways:

  • First, the commission comprises 10 members: nine appointees and the city’s human resources commissioner. The nine appointees are chosen by the city’s “board of review,” whose three members are the mayor, the Council president and the city comptroller. That way, no single branch of government steers the process.
  • Second, the Council can only award pay raises in an election year. This allows voters to express their opinions immediately, rather than years after a pay raise has been adopted. The commission must recommend raises, if any, by May 1. The Council must accept or reject the commission’s recommendations by June 15.
  • Third, the Citizens Salary Review Commission is subject to the state’s open meetings law, meaning its proceedings must be advertised in advance and open to the public.

According to Wolf, the Council followed the charter in 2019, when a commission recommended giving the city’s elected officials their first raises since 1998. For elected school board members, it was their first increase since 1974.

In 2019, the board of review signed and issued certificates of appointment for each of the nine appointees. Those certificates were filed with the Council as a “communication” from the mayor’s office. The Council did not vote on the appointments because the charter does not give the Council any say over the commission’s membership.

That’s not how it worked this time. 

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There is no public record that the board of review met this year at all, let alone to choose commission members. If they met in private, Wolf told the Council, that would be a violation of the state’s open meetings law.

“The only body with the authority to appoint commission members is the board of review, which consists of the mayor, the city comptroller and the council president,” Wolf said on May 23. 

Representatives for the mayor and the comptroller did not respond when Investigative Post asked if the board of review met this year. A representative for Council President Darius Pridgen said he would seek an answer, but ultimately did not provide one. 

The board of review did not send certificates of appointment to the Council this year, as it did in 2019. Instead, the Council chose the commission’s members itself.

In fact, it did so twice.

On April 18, Pridgen submitted a resolution naming nine members to the commission. The resolution was a “late file,” added to the agenda after the Council’s regular deadline for new items. North District Council Member Joe Golombek objected to the late file, which should have tabled the matter for a couple weeks, but his objection was overruled. The Council approved the nominations and the commission held its first meeting on April 21. 

According to the minutes of that meeting, one commission member — David Franzyck, himself a former Council president — observed that the charter required that no more than six of the nine appointees be registered to the same political party. Eight of the nine members were Democrats. At least two were not city residents, another violation of charter requirements.

So, on April 25 — one week before the commission’s recommendations were due — the Council convened a special meeting to dismiss some board members and appoint new ones, to address those shortcomings.

Just hours after the Council had reshuffled its membership, the commission held its final meeting, at which it voted to recommend the pay raises approved by the Council Tuesday.

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Wolf and the New York Coalition for Open Government sent the Council a letter on May 8, pointing out the ways the process appeared to violate the city charter. (The letter also suggested the commission likely violated state open meetings law.) Wolf testified to the Finance Committee on May 23. He sent an email on June 12, the day before the vote, in which he once again reminded Council members that they lacked the authority to appoint the commission’s members.

“If Salary Review Commission members were not properly appointed then the right thing to do is to not approve the recommendations made by the Commission,” Wolf wrote. “This is not about pay raises, this is about following the law and complying with the requirements of the City Charter.”

Golombek voted against the raises, as did the Lovejoy District’s Bryan Bollman and the South District’s Christopher Scanlon. The University District’s Rasheed Wyatt was absent. The measure now goes to the mayor, who can sign it into law, allow it to pass into law without his signature, or veto it.

The pay hikes, if they withstand any legal challenges, will go into effect this coming January 1.

Investigative Post

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