Flags fly above Ashland city offices. [Mail Tribune/file photo]
During Tuesday’s Ashland City Council meeting, city councilors and the mayor learned their revoked health care benefits will not be reinstated without a public vote because, according to the city’s acting attorney, they are an illegal form of compensation.
After a long search through the city’s archives for supporting documentation of the benefit — originating some 65 years ago but revoked by Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard in August — Ashland cannot legally continue to offer councilors or the mayor health benefits, said Acting City Attorney Doug McGeary.
“We have found no record as to how or why the introduction of health benefits — which have occurred since 1954 and 1966 — were accomplished or justified,” he said.
The benefit — variously referred to as hospital insurance, fringe benefits and health insurance over the years — has no legal basis in Ashland’s records, McGeary said. Likely it was a slight padding to the slender compensation given to councilors and the mayor when it was first offered. Ashland used to have its own hospital, he said, so maybe hospital insurance was related to that.
Midcentury health insurance costs are not comparable with health insurance costs in the modern age, he argued. Now, the benefits council and the mayor have enjoyed are so costly as to constitute illegal wages to an elected official.
“Article three, section three — it’s in your charter entitled salaries — requires a public vote on changes to the mayor and council’s compensation. There has not been a public vote to establish a change in the mayor or council’s compensation since the 1960s — it’s $500 a year for the mayor; it’s $350 a year for councilor members.”
“I’m going to say this now — there are statutes out there that it’s unlawful for any public official to expend any money in excess of the amount provided by law, or for any different purpose than provided by law,” he said. “We can argue if it’s compensation or it’s not compensation. But if we’re wrong, we’re not talking about hundreds of dollars in a 1950s sense — we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Because the city manager and others like himself would authorize the benefits, it could mean dire consequences for all involved, he said. The receipt of benefits past could be defended by ignorance. But continuing to receive benefits in the face of this legal opinion is a bridge too far.
“I’m unwilling to take that risk for you folks. I’ve got the city to concern myself with, I’ve got the city manager to concern myself with and, frankly, I’ve got all you to concern myself with. If someone weren’t happy with this situation, they could be seeking to get all that money back,” he said.
He encouraged seeking a vote for a fixed amount from the public for their health insurance. He assured them it was impossible to state the amount of staff work that went into attempting to prove themselves wrong in order to resume offering benefits.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, geez, this would be a great way to cut money out of the budget.’ It’s an awful, crappy situation, and I’m sorry,” he said.
Some councilors and Akins responded with frustration to the news they would lose their benefits permanently — barring a public vote in favor of a fixed amount.
Akins argued she and her colleagues have supervisory power over the city manager, the city attorney and the work product of the city recorder, but McGeary said that is supervision enacted as a group while the insurance policies are issued individually.
Councilor Gina DuQuenne asked if there was a source document forbidding the benefit, and McGeary responded there is not. She asked if the money already was allocated for the benefit, and she was told it was.
“Why can’t we continue and have our constituents vote on this, and let them speak to whether or not the council should receive health insurance?” DuQuenne asked.
McGeary said every receipt of benefits, every month, would count as illegal compensation.
“This has been a benefit longer than I’ve been alive, and you can see me — I’m not a kid,” Akins said.
The benefit has been offered through multitudes of mayors and councils in its roughly 65 years of existence, she said, making it difficult to believe only McGeary and Lessard were bright enough to notice the discrepancy. She also expressed concern that McGeary’s characterization of the city’s records as “notoriously bad” could mean other documents are missing and the understanding of this benefit is skewed by holes in the city’s archives.
Councilor Sean Moran took issue with the city attorney sending an email notifying them of his opinion at 4 p.m. the day of the council meeting.
“It’s abominable. It’s horrific,” he said of the late notice. He also offered a potential legal fight over the issue.
“I just wonder how this would hold up if I were to decide to sue the city; I wonder. Maybe we’ll find out,” he said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.