Elected leaders in this Utah city gave themselves a raise. How residents hope to stop them.

They are asking the Utah Supreme Court to let voters weigh in.

A legal battle is underway in South Salt Lake as a group of residents tries to give voters a chance to weigh in on whether elected city officials should get a raise.

The entanglement, now in the hands of the Utah Supreme Court, stems from a series of actions City Council members have taken since February to give themselves and the mayor a pay bump, something they say is largely about fairness and accurately reflecting the work needed to address the kinds of challenges South Salt Lake faces.

Timothy Webb, a South Salt Lake resident aiming to get the raise passed by the council on ballots in November, said he understands the desire to keep up with the market, and that everybody needs pay increases.

But his political action committee, Promising Oversight, Equity and Transparency, has taken issue with how elected officials got there.

“The council bypassed the stop signs that they had put in place to give themselves a raise,” Webb said, “and [did] not take into account any checks and balances.”

Dissolving a commission

In February, council members voted 6-1 to do away with a commission that was tasked with giving recommendations on pay increases for elected officials.

Council member Portia Mila said the panel was approved in 2018 but never formed. It was supposed to be in place in 2021 but that didn’t happen partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If it had been established, she said, the commission would have submitted salary recommendations during mayoral election years. She said it was created to ensure the mayor would not get a raise.

“It was very vindictive,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Ordinance’s fate lingers in court

A month after repealing the commission, council members voted on a single ordinance that changed two separate sections of city law, boosting pay for themselves and for the mayor.

In response, a group of residents filed an application to distribute a petition for getting the ordinance on city ballots in November.

City Attorney Joshua Collins rejected the application, however, telling the sponsors that the initiative could not move forward because it seeks to change more than one law.

Sponsors of the drive filed an appeal Monday with the state Supreme Court, arguing that the referendum process should be able to move forward because it challenges the single ordinance that was passed by the council.

The pay raises are on hold until the referendum process is resolved.

How big would the raises be?

If the ordinance takes effect, pay for council members, a part-time position, will jump from about $11,300 a year to about $17,300.

The council last received a raise in 2015.

“Inflation is crazy,” Mila said. “We should all be compensated for the work that we do.”

Shane Siwik, the lone council member to oppose dissolving the commission, also cast the only vote against a pay raise, arguing that the new salary was too high.

Another council member, Sharla Bynum, said at the meeting that anyone who is uncomfortable with taking the extra money can refuse it.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Bynum said the process was transparent and conducted publicly, adding that the council did not receive any input from those now pursuing the referendum.

The idea to give council members a raise, she said, came after she saw that South Salt Lake City Council members were the lowest paid in the area.

“You put a lot of time and effort into this,” she said, “and we wanted to reflect that.”

Lowest-paid mayor in valley

The mayor’s salary of about $81,500 would jump to nearly $130,000. Sales tax revenue likely would pay for the salary increases, according to the city.

In an email defending the pay increase, Mayor Cherie Wood said she is a full-time mayor responsible for all administrative functions of the city, and, unlike many other municipalities, she does her job without the help of a city manager or chief administrative officer.

Wood is the longest-serving mayor in the Salt Lake Valley, she said, and, before the council’s vote, was the lowest paid, going a decade without a raise.

South Salt Lake’s population of 27,000 swells during the day with workers and commuters, she said, giving her city a wider set of problems.

“So while we may look like a small city,” she wrote, “we have plenty of big-city challenges.”

If the petition is allowed to move forward, sponsors will have 45 days to collect the necessary number of signatures.