Bristol begins dialogue over top pay packages

Councilors want to clearly define pay and benefits for the town’s top elected positions

By Scott Pickering
Posted 6/23/21

The Bristol Town Council began but did not finish a lengthy conversation about how the Town of Bristol should compensate its administrator and clerk, two elected officials whose compensation packages …

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Bristol begins dialogue over top pay packages

Councilors want to clearly define pay and benefits for the town’s top elected positions

Posted

The Bristol Town Council began but did not finish a lengthy conversation about how the Town of Bristol should compensate its administrator and clerk, two elected officials whose compensation packages are not clearly delineated in town code, during its June 16 meeting. Both of the current office holders elected to hold the discussion in public session.

The dialogue comes months after the retirement of longtime Town Clerk Louis Cirillo and his severance payment of nearly $61,000. That severance package caught some town leaders by surprise and opened the door to uncomfortable questions about how salaries and benefits are determined for the town’s two elected employees. Their salaries are typically set during the town’s budget cycle, or by the council itself, but other things like benefits, sick or vacation time, retirement buyouts and longevity pay, are not.

Those ancillary benefits are typically determined by “tradition,” or by following the same practices as town department heads, like the police and fire chief, all of whom have left with significant severance packages of unused vacation and sick time in recent years. Both Town Administrator Steven Contente and Town Clerk Melissa Cordeiro have stated publicly that they will not take a severance package upon leaving office, but that would be their personal decisions — not codified in law — and it still leaves issues like longevity pay and sick or vacation time unresolved. Those were the two issues that generated the most discussion with councilors.

Paid time off?

The councilors shared dueling philosophies about the accumulation and use of paid time off for both of these offices. Council Chairman Nathan Calouro does not believe the town should establish fixed amounts of sick or vacation time for these positions. He believes these two people report to the people of Bristol, and if they abuse their time off, voters will hold them accountable.

“If the clerk or the administrator needs to be out sick, they need to be out sick, and we respect and trust that. Both will make the decision accordingly …  They were elected by the people, and they’re responsible to the people, and they know what’s necessary for both positions,” Mr. Calouro said.

Councilor Tim Sweeney agreed. “As elected officials, you really work for the people of the town, so you don’t necessarily report to any type of manager or hierarchy,” he said. He want the town to make it clear that paid time off cannot be stockpiled.

Councilor Mary Parella favors establishing policies for time off, but not allowing employees to accumulate unreasonable quantities of unused time. “It depends on how excessive the payouts are, and how much is allowed to be accumulated,” she said. “I mean, if you get three weeks and you can carry over no more than two weeks, then it’s not really a big issue, like when people start banking hundreds of days of sick or vacation time over a very long period of time.”

The Phoenix did a study of recent severance packages for retired department heads and found employees left with buyouts ranging from $15,000 to $107,000.

Councilor Tony Teixeira said he knows of two other towns where the elected employees have no set quantities of time off; they take what they need when or if they need it.

What is ‘experience’ worth?

The discussion over longevity pay was more lengthy and wide-ranging. The town currently pays employees, including the non-union department heads, longevity bonuses based on their years of service to the town. They range from 3.5% of someone’s salary for four years of service, to 7.5% for 15-plus years of service. They are paid in lump sums (in two separate payments) and are in addition to the salary for the job.

Ms. Parella felt Bristol’s are rather generous, but councilors did not spend much time debating that. They focused more on why they exist in the first place.

Town Treasurer Julie Goucher said, “You’re rewarding them for their years of service to the town, where they have much more knowledge and experience than newer employees, and there’s value to that. Unlike private sector employments, we don’t have merit increases or Christmas bonuses.”

Mr. Contente added that a recent survey of municipal town governments showed Bristol’s longevity pay structure is “right in the middle.”

Clerk shares concerns

The tougher questions revolved around when longevity tracking begins and ends. In the case of the two office-holders, they both worked for the town before being elected to office. Mr. Contente retired after 20 years in the police department. Town Clerk Melissa Cordeiro was a 14-year employee when she was elected last fall. Mr. Contente has declined longevity pay, but Ms. Cordeiro is scheduled to get a longevity bonus this month. Councilors debated whether the longevity tracking should follow someone from their role as a member of the union into their role as an elected leader.

Ms. Cordeiro had a lot to say about the council potentially taking away something that was in place when she made the decision to run for office. “When I first ran for this position, I had no idea or would ever believe that the council would ever change the type of compensation that I had, mainly because it’s been in place for decades,” Ms. Cordeiro said. “I’ve been here for 14 years, and when I came into this position, I was under the assumption that my time would be valued just as much as anybody else who sat in this position before me.”

Ms. Cordeiro said that one of her predecessors, Diane Mederos, accumulated years of service as town clerk and then transferred that over to her role as town administrator. Ms. Cordeiro warned councilors that if they take some of these things away, “you’re actually offering them less of a compensation than anybody else who works for the town, so they’re actually being treated differently than the other employees.”

Mr. Contente chimed in with a slightly different view. Calling his administrator’s salary “more than fair,” he said, “This is a privilege, being in elected office, and it is quite different from being in the union.” He suggested that the person in the highest position does not always have to command the highest salary — “Some hospital administrators make less than the surgeons,” he said.

The timing of changes?

Councilors also debated the timing of any policies. Some believed changes should take effect for the next cycle of elected offices — December of 2022. Ms. Parella argued that they should take effect after the current office-holders are no longer in office.

“I don’t think we should change the rules until there’s a different clerk,” Ms. Parella said. “If you do it now, you’re changing the person’s salary.”

The council agreed to continue the discussion a month from now, during its second July meeting. They expect their legal counsel will prepare a detailed analysis on municipal compensation packages.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.