February 28 was Phil Busse's lucky day. That's the day that the John Branam campaign for city council cut him a check for $15,000, for Busse's work as campaign manager. (March 6 and March 14 were also good days for Busse, the Mercury's former managing editor. He picked up another $1,000 on each, and says he'll ultimately rake in $25,000 between now and the May 20 election.)

The big payday came just two days after Branam deposited $134,745 in public campaign funds, following certification as a "clean money" candidate.

From the size and timing of the check, it sure looks like Branam is paying Busse back for the hours he put in while the campaign was seeking public financing certification—a big no-no under the terms of the program, which limit pre-certification spending (or pledges to spend) the cash you've got in the bank from $5 to contributions and small seed-money donations. Branam and Busse, who's been managing the campaign since last fall, insist the prior work was strictly volunteer, and the check isn't back pay.

But if it's not a back payment, the big check looks even more ridiculous. With a three-month campaign, Busse's $25,000 works out to more than $8,000 a month—about twice what mayoral Campaign Manager Jennifer Yocom is pulling in for wrangling Sam Adams' campaign, and more than double what any other campaign manager in Branam's race is making, though they're all working with the same $150,000 public financing budget. (Three make between $3,250 and $3,500 a month.)

Branam explains the difference: "I believe in having people that are on my team that are willing to work their tails off, and Phil is doing that. This is compensation for his tremendous work that he has put in since we received public funding as well as what he's going to continue to do given his expansive role." In addition to managing the campaign, Busse's "expansive role" includes political consulting and writing copy for the website and political ads. And Branam touts Busse's expertise from running his own prior mayoral campaign. (The lump payment was for "efficiency," says Branam.)

Branam's intentions might be noble—that someone should be well paid "to work intensely for three months, 'round the clock, with no vacation time, no health care, no retirement benefits, none of that." But the city code on public financing isn't as generous. Campaign staffers are to be "compensated at fair market value"—which, if you ask around, is a lot less than eight grand a month.

Emilie Boyles sure felt her daughter was worth the $12,500 she paid her for "internet marketing," a move that, among others, led to her decertification as a publicly financed candidate in 2006.

As we went to press, no one had filed a complaint but the auditor's office will "likely look into it." Branam tells me that, were he "to do it all over again, would I have written a $15,000 check right off the bat? No, I wouldn't. It's a lesson learned." One that hopefully didn't also teach voters to be even more skeptical of public financing.