The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Thursday afternoon to table a vote on a proposed 66 percent raise for the city attorney in response to constituents’ concerns about that increase.
“I feel that their message is valid,” said Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who acknowledged receiving comments from “a significant number of citizens” since the possible raise for Hugh Campbell became public on Wednesday.
“And I feel like the main issue is fairness,” added Armbrister, who made a motion for board action on the proposal to be tabled to a future meeting — for which no specific date was given.
Armbrister mentioned during his remarks that while Campbell has not received a salary hike for possibly up to 10 years (time references given for that on Thursday varied), municipal employees have gotten cumulative increases of 17 percent for the same period.
Two other commissioners, Steve Yokeley, who also is serving as acting mayor, and Dean Brown sided with Armbrister on his motion, which came after a lengthy discussion. Voting in opposition were the board’s Shirley Brinkley and Jon Cawley, with the latter implying in random comments at the end of Thursday’s meeting that the tabling of the matter was a political move given its timing.
“My hope is that this is not a sign of what we’re going to get in an election year,” Cawley said of Armbrister, Brown and Yokeley being involved in the 2015 municipal election. Armbrister and Brown are seeking re-election to their commissioner seats while Yokeley is trying to win the mayor’s job on a full-time basis.
“I would hope our courage in the next few months would be strong,” Cawley said of other challenging issues that might come before the council before the election.
Brown seemingly addressed statements by Cawley when his time came to offer comments at the meeting’s end, saying he believes the priority is addressing concerns of citizens.
“And I think that’s what we have done today.”
Everyone seemed in agreement that Campbell has done a great job handling legal issues on behalf of the city government and that they have been pleased with his services.
“I think Counselor Campbell is a huge asset to the city of Mount Airy,” Cawley said, which was echoed by other officials, including Armbrister.
“This has nothing to do with our attorney personally or the job he does,” Armbrister said of his motion. “He is the highest-quality individual I have ever met.”
Campbell has been city attorney since 2002, when he was a member of the Gardner law firm that served in this capacity since the 1960s. Campbell continued in the role when opening his own law firm in 2012, and has worked under the same contract since.
Based on the raise proposal before the board Thursday which was requested by Campbell, his monthly fee would go from $2,500 to $4,167 — or $30,000 to about $50,000 on an annual basis.
In addition, the scope of work involved was to drop from 30 to 25 hours per month under the original wording of the proposal, which also ruffled some citizen feathers. But a revised document was presented Thursday afternoon which removes any mention of such hours, basically stating that the attorney will serve at the pleasure of city government.
The proposed contract also calls for Campbell to be paid an additional $150 per hour to cover any services beyond his standard scope of work, such as handling litigation or “similarly complex matters.”
The city attorney has received the same compensation for years while the legal responsibilities associated with the post have grown, Campbell said earlier this week, citing increases in various projects and similar factors.
Commissioner Brinkley, who also is up for re-election this year but facing no opposition, noted Campbell’s length of time without a raise and his valuable service in her support of the hike.
She responded to citizen concerns about the issue, including a suggestion that the city attorney services be put out for competitive bids, saying this is a bad idea and possibly could result in a less-qualified individual.
“We could end up paying them a whole lot less and end up with a jackleg from who knows where.”
Brinkley further addressed salaries in general.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t get paid what they’re worth,” she said. “But I think we need to keep people on our team who are familiar with our situation.”
Even if the proposed raise were divided by 25 hours a month, the figure is “pretty doggone cheap,” Brinkley said.
“I’m in favor of Hugh Campbell getting the raise that he has asked for,” she said.
Cawley pointed out that the new compensation level amounts to only about 2 percent of the city’s budget of around $13.5 million, a rate any corporation “would love to have.”
It was agreed Thursday afternoon that Campbell possibly works off the clock in many cases, responding to calls at odd hours and providing quick responses on issues arising.
“He’s always been available and willing to help me,” City Manager Barbara Jones said.
Yokeley said he has seen firsthand how hard Campbell works. “He works a lot more behind the scenes than people know.”
However, Yokeley said he also had fielded many comments from citizens about the potential raise and that he wants to make sure the situation is handled fairly for all concerned.
At the end of Thursday’s meeting, Campbell reacted to the discussion and the board’s decision to table the issue, saying he appreciated all the comments about his service.
The attorney added that he understood the motivation of those backing that move.
“I certainly don’t want to be the source of controversy or conflict,” Campbell said, adding that he, too, wants an outcome that is fair to everyone.
Campbell told board members that he is sorry about how the issue has “landed” in light of the public concerns.
“I certainly know it put you on the hot spot.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.