Editorial: New city manager’s salary is a hard pill to swallow

Talk about a trial by fire. She’s not even on the job yet, and already Katie Lichtig is facing her first controversy as San Luis Obispo’s new city manager.

And it’s not even of her making.

In the end, it was the City Council that decided to pay Lichtig $221,000 per year — nearly $30,000 more than veteran San Luis Obispo City Manager Ken Hampian. It’s also a whopping $65,000 more than the salary earned by Jim App of Paso Robles, who manages the county’s second-largest city.

We agree that Lichtig has an impressive resume. She’s currently assistant manager for the city of Beverly Hills and was formerly city manager of Malibu.

She should be an excellent fit for our community, and we look forward to her ideas and her leadership, especially when it comes to helping the city recover its financial footing.

We admit, though, that we, too, experienced sticker shock over her pay. We found it especially hard to reconcile such a jump in salary when we considered that, just last June, the council eliminated 28 positions. Fortunately, most were already vacant, but some were not.

On top of that, the city announced there would be no cost-of-living raises for any of its employees in 2009-10.

While a $30,000 bump in the city manager’s salary won’t break the city, it’s got to be frustrating to veteran employees to be told there’s not enough money for raises for them — but a newly hired worker will be earning much more than her predecessor.

We’ve heard the justification: Local salaries are “out of whack” with other areas, and the city must be prepared to pay more in order to compete for top candidates.

That line of reasoning might work in normal times, but it’s harder to swallow when so many local residents are still struggling to survive the worst financial crisis since the Depression.

That doesn’t mean that our political leaders — whether elected or appointed — should not be adequately paid. But we do believe that now, more than ever, government officials must be sensitive to what their constituents are experiencing. At a time when so many workers are being laid off or forced to take furloughs or pay cuts, they have little patience for what can be perceived as unnecessarily generous salaries or perks for government workers.

That’s not to imply the City Council erred in hiring Lichtig.

We’re prepared to give the council the benefit of the doubt, and accept that it weighed all 100 applicants and determined she was the best person for the job. We’ll trust that judgment until proven otherwise.

Again, we look forward to Lichtig’s arrival — and welcome the opportunity for her to demonstrate why the City Council made the right choice.