After more than six hours of debate, the Lower Merion Township commissioners voted late Wednesday to approve a $275,000 pay package for township manager Douglas Cleland.
A minority of Republicans led by commissioner Jenny Brown tried without success to amend the two-year pact, which would have caused it to be tabled under Roberts Rules of Order.
The vote was 8 to 5, with one member of the 14-member panel absent.
The yes votes all came from Democrats; the no votes came from three Republicans and two Democrats who broke with party lines.
In an extraordinary, wide ranging discussion, the commissioners argued over township decision-making processes, their view of what the township manager should be, how much that should be worth to taxpayers, and whether the township's high bond rating was due to the manager or other factors.
They argued about the solicitor's role in contract negotiations - whether that was a conflict of interest - and if Cleland had ever undergone a formal performance review.
They considered - and disagreed - over whether longevity bonuses and deferred compensation provisions - were ever approved by the board, or if they needed to be.
They compared Cleland's contract to those in the private sector, and ones in similar municipalities. They talked about the lean economic times and what effect a recession should have on fiscal management.
In the end, though, the issue came down to Cleland's deep experience and institutional knowledge, said commissioner Daniel Bernheim, one of three who worked on the contract for ayear.
"The fact of the matter is we're fortunate to have a highly-skilled manager," he said. It just wasn't worth the risk of losing his expertise to save money on his salary, he said.
The predominantly Democratic panel talked well into the night about what to pay Douglas Cleland, the municipal manager since 2002. The deal on the table called for a base wage of $202,989, rising to $207,049 in 2013, according to the contract document released before the meeting.
The package includes longevity pay of 8.1 percent and a township contribution of 8 percent towards deferred compensation, a company car plus fuel, and other perks.
Cleland has been working without a contract since December.
A little before 11 p.m., the Administrative and Human Resources Committee voted, 8-5, to recommend the contract to the board as a whole for consideration.
The board has 14 members, one of whom was absent Wednesday night. Ten are Democrats.
At the meeting, attended by 85 residents, speakers were divided on the contract: Many said Cleland's knowledge and skills were so deep that he was underpaid. Others bridled at the benefits and perks paid for by the township, including the company car and gas.
"That's ludicrous," said Bernard Becker, a retired businessman from Wynnewood.
Gayle Michael of Bala Cynwyd asked that the contract be given further study.
"Please rethink this. There's no real rush. Put this on the back burner and have a community meeting," she said.
Commissioner V. Scott Zelov said: "For me it's about what's the job worth, but not with this generous a salary. My view is it should not increase over the two-year term."
Zelov and fellow Commissioners Daniel Bernheim and Richard Churchill worked for a year formulating the contract.
"We have the very best manager in this region," Commissioner Brian Maguire said. "What we're really talking about is ratifying this manager or getting another manager."
He said the latter option was not worth the $40,000 that the township would save.
"We've got the ninja township manager here.," Maguire said. "How can you look to cut someone's salary who has been an excellent performer?"
Commissioner Steven K. Lindner said that in Cleland, "we have a proven, known quantity." It would be too risky to start with someone new, he said.
Commissioner Lewis F. Gould Jr. asked whether township solicitor Gil High acted as solicitor for the township in the contract negotiations. He indicated independent counsel would have been more prudent.
"This is a fundamental issue of due process," he said.
Gould said commissioners had never approved the longevity bonus or the deferred compensation aspects of the contract.
"So in my view it is highly inappropriate for this board to approve this contract," he said.
Gould said Cleland gets eight weeks of vacation and 60 sick days, far more than is offered in the private sector.
Wednesday night's meeting followed a contentious debate begun last year over just how much should be paid to a township manager of a 60,000-member municipality in lean economic times.
"My chief objection to the contract is that the compensation is excessive and far out of line with any comparable municipality in the region," said Commissioner Jenny Brown, one of the panel's four Republicans.
"I think the Democrats are so keen on it because they are blinded by their affection for Doug Cleland. They are not looking at it objectively. If the candidate were anyone other than Cleland, I do not think for a moment they would be insisting on paying the person this much."
Her point of view was echoed by Lower Merion Citizens for Responsible Budgeting, a nonprofit group created by David O'Connell, according to information on the group's website, www.lmcrb.org.
The group sponsored a 38-second "robocall" sent out to homes in Lower Merion. The recorded message, reportedly left by "Paul from Ardmore," encouraged residents to attend the meeting and lobby against the contract. Cleland, the message said, "is paid more than the governor."
"Tell the commissioners to say no to excessive pay for public servants in this tough economy," said the recorded voice, traced to 801-410-7985 in Utah.
The robocall raised the ire of speakers at the meeting as well as past Democratic commission president Bruce Reed, who called the tactic misleading.
"I think they're inherently annoying, but this one I find particularly disturbing because it is someone who identifies himself as 'Paul from Ardmore.' It's actually an anonymous, fictitious person."
O'Connell, president of the nonprofit group, responded to the criticism in an e-mail to The Inquirer.
"The facts in the call are accurate and LMCRB, a [Pennsylvania] nonprofit corporation, is clearly identified as the sponsor of the call," O'Connell wrote. "If Mr. Reed and his allies think the pay package is appropriate why would they object to any effort to publicize the vote?"
The package places Cleland among the highest-paid municipal administrators.
Reed pointed to a bipartisan statement released in April by current and former township officials, vigorously defending Cleland's generous contract as pay worthy of a strong, effective leader.
The officials said he had conserved public money with efficiencies, negotiated sound contracts with employee unions, and protected the municipality's stellar bond rating, saving it money.
"Doug is a remarkable public servant. You get what you pay for in this life, and you want to make sure you are preserving what is good in government," Reed said.