In Lower Merion, a dispute over town manager's pay comes to a head this week

Lower Merion township manager Douglas Cleland.
Lower Merion township manager Douglas Cleland.
Posted: July 10, 2012

In a slow economy, how much is too much to pay the manager of an affluent township of 60,000 people on Philadelphia's Main Line?

That question, debated for months in Lower Merion, will come to a head this week.

Republican Commissioner Jenny Brown, and several others on the township board, say a $275,000 pay package for Township Manager Douglas Cleland is "excessive."

Brown has been e-mailing residents to urge them to "make your concerns heard" on Wednesday when the board is scheduled to vote on a new contract for Cleland that would bump his pay over time but keep it flat in 2012.

Others on the Democratically controlled board counter that Cleland, manager since 2002 and a 28-year township employee, has saved the township hundreds of thousands of dollars with efficiencies, has protected and capitalized on a stellar AAA credit rating, and has negotiated fiscally sound contracts with employee unions.

Cleland, who has been working without a contract since December, has a base salary of $202,989 a year. Benefits bring his total compensation to $275,000, commissioners said.

He is among the best-paid municipal administrators in the region and, as Brown likes to point out, takes home more than the Pennsylvania governor or Philadelphia mayor.

"It's just excessive," Brown said in an interview Sunday.

Comparing a professional day-to-day municipal manager with political leaders such as governors is like comparing apples and oranges, supporters of the Cleland contract say.

Cleland "knows Pennsylvania law. He's been able to refinance our debt, saving us money," said Commissioner C. Brian McGuire, a Democrat. "We are one of only four townships in the country with a AAA credit rating. He's done an excellent job, and we are lucky to have him."

Cleland, who did not respond to an e-mail request for comment Sunday, manages a township staff of 422 full-time and 311 part-time employees that includes the Lower Merion Police Department.

He graduated from Ohio State University with a master's degree in public administration.

In March, he told The Inquirer that his his job was 24/7 and hard work.

"I work for one of the premier municipalities in the state and in the country," he said. "It can be very demanding. There are some [managers] who make more and some that make less."

Cleland's new contract proposal was on the agenda several times earlier this year, but was tabled, partly because of provisions of a new state law. It says municipal boards may not enter into a contract that extends beyond the board's tenure.

The 15-page proposal that the board will consider on Wednesday would cover 2012 and 2013.

Daniel Bernheim, a Democrat who headed the committee that developed the contract proposal, said it takes into account that today's economic climate is far tougher than when Cleland last signed a contract in 2008.

Under the old contact, Cleland received 5 percent annual increases in base salary Bernheim said.

"There would be no change in any compensation in 2012," said Bernheim, a lawyer. "In the second year, he would get a 2 percent increase in base pay" that would effectively be eaten up by changes in health-care coverage.

"For those who want to say he's overpaid, it's a good sound bite," he added.

Brown and Lewis F. Gould Jr., a fellow Republican, have been outspoken in saying just that.

In one of her e-mails to residents, Brown noted that the manager of neighboring Radnor Township recently volunteered to reduce his overall compensation, showing "the type of leadership that we should be able to expect from a first-class township manager."

Brown also objected to a provision under which the township would pay for gas for Cleland's township-supplied car, even when he uses it for personal reasons.

"That's the kind of thing that really sticks in people's craw," she said.

In any case, she says she expects the debate to end at the meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. at the Township Administration Building, 75 E. Lancaster Ave. in Ardmore.

"They wouldn't be bringing it forward if they didn't think it would pass," she said.

Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mccullough@phillynews.com.

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