Council still unsure about source for new employees' salary

Mayor Steve Benjamin

COLUMBIA (WACH) -- Columbia City Council rejected a request Wednesday to use emergency reserve funds to pay the temporary salaries for two campaign employees of Mayor Steve Benjamin hired two weeks ago by city manager Steve Gantt.

Gantt hired Michael Wukela and Sam Johnson and assigned them to Benjamin TMs office; the pair will be paid $32,000 collectively through the end of the year. However, after council's decision Wednesday it's still unknown how they will be paid.

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City council recommended their combined salaries come from money intended for other positions not currently filled. Ultimately, City Manager Steve Gantt will make that decision.

Mayor Benjamin says Wukela and Johnson's service are vital toward advancing his agenda.

"Everything from helping me with administrative tasks, setting policy, to implementing the recommendations in the transition team report. They'll have a number of duties," Benjamin explains.

Political commentator Kevin Fisher says if the city wants to use taxpayer money to hire staff, they should give everyone the opportunity to apply.

"If the mayor is going to get new staff members that prior mayors have not had, those positions need to be advertised, resumes need to be solicited and evaluation process needs to be gone through, and then winners picked," Fisher says.

Benjamin adds the city has done everything it can to stay under budget including cutting his $17,500 salary. Benjamin voluntarily cut his pay last month, and asked council to use the money to establish a reward program for city employees who come up with ideas to save the city money.

"I've cut my personal salary in half," he explains. "We don't use the city car, we don't use the city laptop, don't use city cell phones, we are running a very fiscally responsible operation."

The city also claimed in a release sent Wednesday afternoon the mayor's office has cut $80,000 in salaries since Benjamin's taking office. While that statement is accurate, it results from the reassignment of former Mayor Bob Coble's assistant out of the mayor's office into another department. The move does not result in any savings for city taxpayers.

Councilmembers Daniel Rickenmann and Tameika Isaac Devine were not present at Wednesday's meeting. Rickenmann was out of town and Devine was grieving the loss of her father.

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