SOUTH PORTLAND — When City Councilors discussed their potentially illegal health care insurance benefit in November, a majority of them told residents that if they had a problem with the benefit they should take action to get it changed themselves.
Now those residents have done just that.
During a council meeting Monday, councilors were presented with a petition signed by 131 residents, urging the city to stop offering the benefit immediately and to follow Section 209 of the city’s charter, which limits councilor compensation to $3,000 per year. It also demands councilors put the issue before residents for a vote.
The petition comes on the heels of a threat from a resident to sue the city if it doesn’t rid itself of the benefit.
“This is an ethical issue,” said Gary Crosby, who proliferated and presented the petition, on Monday. “It’s completely wrong. Put it to the people to decide.”
A 2009 reading of the law by City Attorney Sally Daggett purports that the benefit – which costs as much as $14,000 for full family coverage — is independent of the compensation outlined in the charter.
Another lawyer, William Plouffe of DrummondWoodsum, gave an opinion last month that said the benefit was not allowed by the charter.
The city paid more than $55,000 this year to insure four councilors – Maxine Beecher, Tom Blake, Tom Coward and Jim Hughes, who has since been termed out of office. If all councilors took the full family benefit, it would cost the town $98,000.
Crosby was joined by two others Monday who spoke out against the benefit.
Pam Beal, a Sylvan Road resident, told councilors she found it unconscionable the councilors would continue to allow the huge budget line item while shutting off street lights to save money.
“Giving yourselves this benefit without voter approval compromises the trust of the voters,” she said. “You have an opportunity to put an end to this issue once and for all.”
Questions have been raised about the benefit over the last few years, with the council opting every time to maintain the status quo. Concerns include not only whether the benefit is allowed by the charter, but that the health care sets up a tiered system, in which insured councilors receive more taxpayer money than uninsured ones.
This year, the council has thus far have been divided on the issue along predictable lines: Those accepting the benefit argue to protect the city’s history of offering it while those who do not receive the benefit want to see it removed or written into the charter.
The matter is made more complicated by a threat of litigation from regular city critic Al DiMillo.
In late November, DiMillo sent an email to all the councilors saying that if they didn’t stop offering the benefit within a month, he’d take them to court for violation of the city charter. DiMillo said that he’d seek not only an end to taxpayer-funded health care for councilors, but would demand repayment of premiums retroactive as far as Maine statute allows.
“If you agree to stop receiving the free health care immediately, I will not file my lawsuit,” he wrote. “You risk not only losing future free health care, but will also have to repay thousands for prior years’ illegal payments.
On Wednesday, DiMillo said he had yet to hear back from any representative of the city. He also said he’s since decided to give the council more time to address the issue, after being asked by Crosby to allow the petitioners a chance to move the council.
“I’m hoping they’ll do it just to do what’s right,” DiMillo said. “But this is not a city council that has done many things right in the past.”
Moving forward, it’s unclear how the council will act or whether it will act at all.
Councilors Beecher, Coward and Blake have been clear that they see no problem with continuing to offer the benefit.
Despite the petition brought Monday, Coward said he still believes most residents are just fine with councilors accepting free health care. When asked where those supporters were, he said they were at home.
“They’re getting on with their lives,” he said Wednesday. “People don’t come down to say they want the status quo to carry on.”
Coward dismissed the petitioners as a “few people” bringing up the issue “over and over again.” He said he wouldn’t be swayed to give the issue much more thought unless residents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.
Mayor Patti Smith and Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis want the issue put before voters. Smith has plans to bring the issue before the council for a workshop in early next year. De Angelis is so convinced the benefit is wrong that she said she’ll urge City Manager Jim Gailey not to defend the insurance if DiMillo goes through with his lawsuit.
“We shouldn’t be expending legal fees to defend us in a lawsuit when I think the other side is right,” she said. “Do we need to spend money defending a position that so many residents think isn’t credible?”
The question marks are Councilors Al Livingston and Jerry Jalbert. Neither of them take the free health care, but both have said that if changes are going to be made, they need to be initiated by residents, not decided by the council.
In November, Livingston said he’s “had a hard time” seeing the benefit as allowed by the charter.
“It’s the jurisdiction of the citizens to decide what adequate council compensation is,” he said.
Jalbert said Wednesday that he doesn’t see the benefit as illegal. He cites state law that allows cities to consider councilors as full-time employees for insurance purposes.
In a perfect world, he said, City Council would be a voluntary commitment, with no compensation at all. Still, he said he’d support putting something in front of voters to clear the air and clarify the charter. But he would only support language initiated by voters.
“This should not be written by the city council,” he said. “It’s not fair to taxpayers to have councilors questioning what’s good for councilors. The question should be what’s good for the taxpayers of South Portland.”
In other council news, the city agreed 5-1 to sign a $254,000 contract with Unitil to expand natural gas service to the new South Portland High School. Councilor Jalbert opposed the contract.
Superintendent Suzanne Godin told the council the cost is only half the real cost of the project because the utility agreed to offset the project with expected income from providing gas.