Should commissioners get paid? We think not | Editorial

Last year, the five commissioners who make up the Vashon Island Fire & Rescue board received, all told, $16,932. How? For the most part, simply by attending board meetings.

The five members who make up the Vashon Island School Board also attended a lot of meetings last year. Their collective take? Zero.

That, too, was the compensation offered to the Vashon Park District board and Vashon’s cemetery board.

When it comes to civic duty, it appears, our Island places a much higher value on those who oversee the fire department than those who oversee our schools, parks or cemetery.

This is not, of course, the fire commissioners’ fault. According to state statute, each fire commissioner “shall” receive a per diem of $104. Water District 19’s three commissioners also receive a $104 per diem — which last year amounted to a little more than $6,000 in pay. The sewer district’s three commissioners receive $90 per diem, again by state statute.

The school board, meanwhile, “may” receive a per diem of $50. The board has not opted to do so.

The fire board recently grappled with this issue. Last year, when its per diem climbed from $90 to $104, the five Islanders on the commission — prompted by a motion by then-Commissioner Gayle Sommers — opted not to take the higher compensation. A fire commissioner must actively waive the pay the state so generously mandates. On Vashon, those on the board at the time did so — but only as it applied to the $14 per day increase.

The issue came up at last week’s debate, when Jake Jacobovitch, a veteran of Vashon’s public commissions, asked the four candidates for two seats on the fire commission if they’d consider waiving their per diems. Sure, all four said, they would consider it — but no one pledged on the spot to do so.

We think the candidates — as well as the incumbents — should pledge to do so.

Except for the fact that it’s a statutory fluke of Washington law, there’s no rational reason that fire commissioners should make a per diem and school board members not. The fire department has a $4.4 million budget, the school district a $14.5 million budget. The fire department employs 28 people, the school district 120.

The fire department performs a very important function, responding, as it does, to life-threatening emergencies. But how can one argue that the education of our young people is any less important? The threat of a poorly educated populace may not be as imminent as the threat of a heart attack — but it’s no less real or profound, and its impact, over the long-haul, could be far-reaching.

We assume Islanders run for various board positions out of a sense of civic duty. If that’s the case, there’s no reason a commissioner should receive up to $104 to sit at a 90-minute board meeting. Direct expenses — the travel costs of attending an off-Island meeting — should of course be covered. But voluntary governance — the bi-weekly or even weekly work of an elected commissioner — should not.


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