Eight months after he got a pay increase, City Manager Jay Burney got another one.
The Olympia City Council gave Burney an $8,050 yearly salary increase starting January 1, bringing his annual salary to $205,000.
His last pay increase, of $1,950 per year, was in mid-May of 2021, which brought his salary to $196,950. The council appointed him as city manager in May 2020 at a salary of $195,000. He’d spent the previous ten years as assistant city manager.
Information on Burney’s salary history was available only through a public record request from The Olympia Tribune the city required before releasing it. “I will ask any reporter seeking employee salary information to make a public records request. I believe that will give them the best, most accurate information,” City Strategic Communications Director Kellie Purce-Braseth responded in an email to The Tribune more than two weeks after it emailed her requesting the information.
Also hard to come earlier this year was information on the raises the mayor, mayor pro-tem and council members received in January at the recommendation of the city’s Salary Commission. The 3 percent pay boost and increases in the benefits were noted only in the commission’s July meeting minutes and were not updated on the commission’s web page until late last week.
Other cities and counties around the state, including Tumwater, Lacey and Thurston County, make salary information available on their websites, as does the state of Washington.
While the city manager’s pay history now is public, it is not clear what criteria the council used to grant the increases, when the city council voted on them, or what it discussed during executive sessions in July of last year and on January 11 when it reviewed Burney’s performance. By law, executive sessions (discussions of personnel matters are among the legal reasons for executive sessions) are closed to the public, and council members may not discuss what took place. Burney’s salary increase is not noted in the minutes of that meeting; they say only that the council met and no decisions were made. The same is true for his mid-year performance review in July 2021.
The state’s open public meetings law exempts discussions during executive sessions from public disclosure. Neither Burney nor Braseth nor City Attorney Mark Barber responded to a question about when or whether the council took action in an open public meeting to approve the pay hikes. If it did not, it raises a question about whether the city council complied with a portion of the law that states: “The final action of hiring, setting the salary of an individual employee or class of employees, or discharging or disciplining an employee, must also be taken in an open public meeting.”
The Tribune also reached out to the seven council members for comment. Only Council Member Lisa Parshley responded. “I have always believed that we should be transparent in what we pay elected officials, it’s taxpayers’ money, and the electorate hired us for those jobs,” she said. For other non-elected city jobs, Parshley favors posting the amount paid to the position without the name of the person in that position, citing privacy concerns regarding a specific individual’s pay.
“I would need interpretation of our city and state laws from our city attorney and HR specialist before I would be comfortable with publishing it. If it is legal and ethical, I would be okay with publishing the city manager’s salary as this is the top official in the city next to the city council,” Parshley said.
The lack of prompt public notification of the pay raises for Burney, and council members, comes at a time when the city’s communications with the public were sharply criticized in a communications survey in 2021 when the city launched a three-to-five-year strategic communications planning process.
A research firm surveyed more than people living in Olympia and asked, among other things, very specific questions about the city’s communications efforts, which respondents generally found to be lacking. It concluded: “On the whole, residents tend to feel more negatively than positively about how the City currently communicates with residents.”
Almost 50 percent of those surveyed said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statements: “The city keeps residents informed about what is happening in government” and “I am well informed about the actions and the ongoing work of the city council.”
And 51 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “The city is open and transparent.” They also said that their preferred methods of communication from the city are social media and the city’s website, which recently was revamped, and email.
Olympia has a council/manager form of government, which means it delegates day-to-day authority for city operations to Burney. Among other things, Burney directly supervises the city’s police chief and its communications staff. Then Interim Police Chief Aaron Jelcick and police officers were widely criticized for their actions, and lack of action, during violent protests and counter-protests in downtown Olympia in 2020 and 2021 among Black Lives Matter organizers and their supporters and members of groups calling themselves militias.
The city has been without a permanent chief since late 2019. Burney has been leading the search for a new police chief. He “paused” the first try when The Tribune reported that one of the four finalists had been reprimanded in 2017 by the Kalamazoo Michigan Police Department for violating that city’s use of force policy.
A second attempt is underway, but The Tribune has reported that two of the three finalists have been named in legal actions referencing hostile workplace issues, and one has been sued over allegations of racism and discrimination. Braseth has said that the city is aware of the problems and that “being the subject of a lawsuit or claim is not an automatic disqualifier.” She said Burney looked into all of them, and “came away comfortable with the conversations he’s had with both the recruiting firm and the candidates.” Burney later told the local newspaper, The Olympian he had done background checks on the finalists himself.
Last week, Braseth said that further background checks are underway, and she expects a new chief to be named this week.
The city has 600 employees and a 2022 council-approved operating budget of $177 million. Burney also supervises Braseth, whose base pay was more than $134,000 in 2020, according to a salary database published provided to The Olympian through a public record request in that year. Last July, the council approved paying $150,000 for three new full-time communications positions, one to field media calls and to work on internal communications, a social media strategist, and a graphic designer.
It also is paying $100,000 to keep a crisis communication firm on retainer, and $200,000 is available for contracts with photographers, videographers, and writers.