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Westminster mayor, council divided on benefits eligibility

Westminster mayor, council divided on benefits eligibility
Westminster Mayor Joe Dominick (HANDOUT)

Mayor Joe Dominick said he does not plan to sign an ordinance voted upon Monday night by the Westminster Common Council concerning their health insurance and other non-cash benefits.

The council voted 3-1 to amend the fourth chapter of the city code to include elected officials as an eligible class for coverage alongside city employees in regards to health, vision and dental insurance.

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“Since July 1, 2014, the Mayor and Common Council have been treated as full-time staff for insurance benefit purposes,” City Administrator Barbara Matthews said.

This was never formally legislated, and city staff wished to do so in the interest of transparency after the matter was brought to attention, according to the meeting packet. All council members agreed on the need for transparency, but differed in opinion of whether the mayor and council should be eligible for the benefits.

Council members Kevin Dayhoff, Ann Thomas Gilbert and Council president Gregory Pecoraro voted in favor of the ordinance while councilman Benjamin Yingling voted against it. Councilman Tony Chiavacci was out of town and missed the meeting.

Dominick said at the meeting, he has “a hard time making an argument that we’re full-time employees.”

If the mayor returns the ordinance unsigned at the next meeting of the Mayor and Council, scheduled for Aug. 12, the ordinance would have to be passed with an affirmative vote of at least four of the five council members.

“It’s just a means of being transparent to the public about what you all are receiving,” City Attorney Elissa Levan said at the July 8 meeting. “The ordinance makes express the fact that elected officials are treated as regular, full-time employees for the purpose of receiving benefits. The resolution just ratifies the incorporation of elected officials in these written health benefit plans.

“So it doesn’t change anything or add any additional benefits. It’s acknowledging that this has been the practice.”

When reached Tuesday, Dominick said his objection is not to increasing transparency about the benefits, saying he believes every benefit should be easily accessible for the public in the way that the annual compensation for the mayor and council is. But he says he finds it hard to classify the mayor and council positions as full-time employment.

“We’re kind of on call 24-7. ... Those arguments are valid, they just don’t hold enough weight for me,” he said.

If the ordinance is passed through council vote, “It’s not something I’m fighting, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my signature on it,” Dominick said.

He said he believes the intent of the annual compensation is meant to offset the expenses that elected officials take on, and that the position is in essence a volunteer one.

“I have spent more each year being mayor than I’ve made [which is] I think the way it should be. I don’t think we should be doing this for the compensation,” he said.

Matthews outlined Westminster’s benefits package in an email to the Times.

“The City offers medical, dental, and vision insurance benefits to full-time staff and part-time staff members who work at least 20 hours per week. For full-time benefited staff, the City makes a financial contribution for all coverage options (individual, husband/wife, parent/child, and family). For part-time benefited staff, the City only contributes towards the cost of individual coverage; part-time benefited staff can elect other coverage options but they pay 100% of the cost differential," she wrote.

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The mayor and council are not employees of the city, so the language makes them eligible for the medical, dental and vision providers. Mayor and council members may opt out of the coverage.

Matthews said she has heard the position of mayor may have been eligible through the city’s plan earlier than 2014, but had not personally come across documentation for that.

Dayhoff, who previously served as mayor from 2001-2005, said he had health insurance through the city’s plan then, though he does not opt in now as a council member.

Yingling agreed with Dominick that the issue was the eligibility itself and not the codification that he objected to with his vote.

“I think it’s so important that, regardless of which way [the vote] went, that it came to the mayor and council for transparency,” he said Tuesday. “I respect all of my colleagues’ opinions and it’s good that we had a discussion about it."

He said he finds it difficult to consider himself equivalent to a full-time employee.

When reached by phone Tuesday, Chiavacci said he would “definitely” vote in support of the ordinance if it returns to the council.

“I think it’s a little silly to make this such a cantankerous issue,” he said, noting he was “confused and disappointed” by what the mayor said at the meeting.

Chiavacci said that he treats the position as a 24/7, 365-day obligation and tries to make himself available to citizens and city staff.

“At the end of the day, some of us take this job very seriously as a full-time position,” he said.

He said he considers himself fiscally conservative and he does not feel the benefit is “inappropriate.” He said the cost to the city is very small for a benefit that people have been making use of for years.

“It’s not free, [elected officials] still pay for it just like any employees would,” he said.

Pecoraro said he voted in favor of the ordinance as clarifying legislation. The practice was in place when he joined the council again in 2015, having served previously from from 1994 to 2003 and from 2005 to 2011.

“It didn’t seem unreasonable to me,” he said. “I think we’re in a time when I certainly believe everyone should be eligible for healthcare somewhere.”

For members of the council who are self-employed or employed part-time, he sees no reason not to make the eligibility available to them, he said.

Dayhoff said the tradition of offering the benefits goes back decades. “I want to see that tradition to be formalized instead of an unwritten expectation,” he said.

In comparison to other municipalities in the state, Dayhoff said he believes Westminster’s elected officials are some of the lowest paid, though he said he does not feel there is an interest among the council in changing that. He agreed with Dominick that the intent of the annual compensation is a stipend against expenses.

Annually, the compensation for the mayor of Westminster is $10,000 per year, for the council president is $3,000 per year and for a council member is $2,400 per year.

Gilbert said she personally doesn’t have a stake in the eligibility, but said she did not feel the need to vote to change something that has “historically” been provided to elected officials.

If the ordinance either receives the mayor’s signature or, failing that, at least four of five council members voting for it, an additional line will be added to the “salaries and compensation” section of the city code that will state: “Elected officials of the City shall be considered to be full-time employees for purposes of eligibility for non-cash employee benefit.”

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