Investment or Overspending? Lynn Wrestles with New Election Job

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[Image via itemlive]

In most communities across America, election officials are in the final stages of preparing for this fall’s vote, and likely aren’t thinking much beyond November 8. In the Massachusetts city of Lynn, however, a funding dispute over a new elections position has left the city with more than a little uncertainty over who’s in charge – and for how long. Itemlive.com has more:

The City Council may have chosen Michele Desmarais as the city’s new deputy election commissioner in time for this fall’s elections, but she likely won’t take the post until next year.

The fight between the City Council and Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy heated up this week over creation of the new job that the mayor said the city doesn’t need and can’t afford.

Despite a warning from the mayor that the position will not be funded, last week the council voted unanimously to hire Desmarais, a city Inspectional Services Department employee, to the newly-created post.

While the the 11-member panel knew the mayor would not pay for the job this year, City Council President Daniel Cahill said the position is critical to the smooth operation of polling places.

Its creation by the council guarantees the slot will be funded in the next fiscal year, which starts next July.

“All the council can do is present a structure and the mayor has the ability not to fund it,” he said. “This is a unique case because we created the job after the passage of our annual budget earlier this year. Next year, it will be funded.”

As a result of the stalemate, City Clerk Mary Audley will continue to manage elections through next June including the September 8 primary and the November 8 presidential race.

The mayor’s objections to the new position seem to be twofold – she thinks it isn’t necessary, and it costs more than the city can afford:

In an interview at her City Hall office, Kennedy said the $73,000 salary quoted by the council is inaccurate.

“When you add Michele’s master’s degree and her longevity as a city employee, that brings the pay to more than $100,000, not including benefits,” she said. “The council presented me a proposal for a financial transfer for $100,000 to finance the job so they know the real cost.”

The new job is unnecessary, the mayor said. Since her first term, the mayor has added two employees to the city clerk’s office to manage elections, she said. In 2013, Audley told the mayor that she needed more help. That year, Kennedy added a Spanish-speaking clerk and provided Audley with a $15,000 annual stipend because election duties got more complicated. The mayor also raised a head clerk’s salary by $26,000 for increased responsibility on elections and added an election coordinator, Mary Jules, at a cost of nearly $40,000.

“I have been more than fair through the years to this department particularly the election side,” she said.

The stipend, new hires and increased salary add up to more than $80,000, the mayor noted …

“Every dollar matters,” Kennedy said. “I don’t believe that adding another person to an office that has already been granted upgrades over the last several years is a way to live within our means. ”

The City Council argues, however, that increased spending is necessary because of the growing nature of the job:

City Councilor-at-Large Brian LaPierre acknowledged that Desmarais’ salary will cost more, but insisted the job is essential.

“Anytime you have a new hire there are costs associated with that position,” he said. “But the responsibility of managing elections continues to grow with early voting and registration. That office has high demand and the election function will come off her plate with this new job.”  

LaPierre said Desmarais was chosen from eight qualified candidates and the list was narrowed to three finalists.

“Michele Desmarais, with her master’s degree and experience managing polling places when she is relieved from the ISD duties,  was the favorite,” he said. “She’s a hard working, knowledgeable person who will work with Mary Audley in the transition. More importantly, she will be a good face for the community.”

What isn’t clear from the article is whether the money spent on Desmarais will replace or merely augment all or part of the existing spending on the clerk’s office. Either way, there might still be some benefit to the city because the clerk will be able to focus on other duties now that elections is covered by someone else full-time. [I also note that the article is silent on what the clerk thinks about these changes; i.e., whether she wants the help the Council is providing. That’s likely an important consideration as well.] Still, it’s an odd situation – but one that won’t be resolved until next summer unless the mayor and council can work out a compromise.

It’s unusual for a community to have more election help than it thinks it needs … but that’s where Lynn finds itself right now until this is resolved. Stay tuned …

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