Council medical benefits, the “Bell” test, and Complete Streets


When I joined the city council about a year ago, one of the first things I did was to attend a new member’s conference in Sacramento, sponsored by the League of California Cities. There I learned about the City of Bell in Los Angeles County.

Bell was an example of notoriously corrupt city government, where a handful of people stole millions from the mostly working-class Latino population. The courts are still sorting out the mess. “Don’t be like Bell,” we heard over and over again at that conference.

Since that experience, I have attempted to make sure that our city council here in Albany acts in a straightforward and transparent manner. I believe that everything the council does should pass the “Bell test.” Don’t be self-serving. Be transparent. Sadly, when it comes to medical benefits for the city council, we have failed the Bell test.

Let me give you the most egregious example. As council members, we get paid $300/month, a very typical amount for a small city in California. However, due to a vote the city council took in 2010, before I was elected, council members are eligible for an “in lieu” benefit if they have other health coverage and don’t join the city health care plan.

Because I already get medical benefits from my employer, I’m eligible for these in lieu benefits. If I chose to take them, and if I served for two terms (eight years total) I would quietly walk away from my council service with a retirement fund worth around $80K to $90K. This is in addition to my monthly wages of $300. Did you know that? Uh, why not? Let me explain how this came about:

City councils and school boards often allow elected officials to take advantage of their health care plans. This makes sense in a world where health insurance is very expensive for small business owners. Up until the Affordable Care Act (ACA) there were big economies of scale for large organizations, since they had more bargaining power and bigger risk pools than smaller organizations.

A city government could offer health care benefits to council members who were small business owners at a much lower rate than the business owners could find it on their own. If you wanted small business owners to serve, this benefit made a lot of sense. Small business owners often have to work extra hours to afford health carehours that they could spend serving on a city council or school board.

On the other hand, there really isn’t any good social-efficiency argument for offering health care benefits to elected officials who already get health care through their (or their spouse’s) employer—especially employers that are large organizations. However, because it’s not considered fair to discriminate, council members like me, who work for large organizations, are also eligible to join the city’s health care plan at no cost, even if we don’t need to.

Providing coverage for people who don’t really need it is expensive for cities, so to discourage this practice, our city government, along with many others, offers an in lieu payment. The payment is substantial, but less than the cost of the health insurance. For Albany, the payment is set at the level of the individual Kaiser health plan, which in 2014 is $742 per month. If I chose to take this money, it would be deposited in a retirement plan, and I would be able to withdraw it at the end of my city council service. That would be about $80K to $90K, as I mentioned, assuming I successfully ran for office again.

But wait, it gets better. Back in 2010, the council members not only voted for in lieu benefits for themselves, they also voted to give themselves better health care benefits than the city staff. City staff are eligible for Kaiser plans at no cost, but must pay the difference if they want a more expensive Blue Cross or other plan. The city council voted to give themselves the more expensive plans at no cost to themselves at all (however, currently, council members do pay the difference out of pocket).

 A few Albany citizens who were at those meetings were surprised and disappointed (to put it politely) and have been trying to raise this issue ever since. Council candidates were asked about this during the elections in the fall of 2012, and we agreed to review these arrangements.

 After I got elected I requested this item be put on the agenda, which it was, a few months ago. The council asked to staff to provide more background information, and staff has done so, in an excellent survey that is part of the agenda packet for the Jan. 21 meeting.

The report compares Albany to 26 other Bay Area small local governments. Of the 26, only 20 offer health care benefits to council members. Of the 20 that offer these benefits, only half (10) provide an in lieu benefit. Guess which city offers the highest in lieu benefit—Albany. Of the 20 cities that offer health care benefits, only five offer full coverage. Only one offers council members better benefits than staff—Albany. To be fair, some cities offer some benefits that Albany doesn’t, and those are mentioned in the report.

Our city staff are also eligible for an in lieu benefit, but they are employees, and their work is governed by a very different set of rules, including labor union contracts. And many city employees work far more than 40 hours per week, due to the number of evening meetings they must attend.

By comparison, I estimate that a city council member spends about average of 10 hours per meeting. We attend the meetings, study the agenda items, meet with the city manager, discuss with the citizenry and attend some other meetings on the side. With two meeting per month, we work about 20 hours per month, probably more when we are serving as mayor or if there are special meetings. A 40 hour per week job is at least 160 hours per month. So the way I see it, serving on the city council is a one-eighth time job, occasionally more.

 In addition to comparing our work to other city councils—an external comparison—we need to make an internal comparison as well. Many of Albany’s citizens volunteer for 20 hours per month with little or no compensation. Our own planning and zoning commission is a good example. Several athletic coaches in our Albany schools work long hours and get very little compensation.

So by both internal and external comparisons, I think the way the city council has chosen to pad its income is arbitrary, self-serving and hidden from plain sight. It doesn’t pass the Bell test. The solution is simple—the council needs to reverse the two votes from 2010 that gave the council higher medical benefits than the staff (the only city in our comparison group to do so), and that gave them the highest in lieu benefits of all the cities in our comparison group.

Before I move on, I’d like to emphasize again that current council members do not take full advantage of these benefits (although others have in the past). I’d also like to point out that there was only one council member at the time that voted against both the higher health care benefits for council, and against in lieu benefits. That person is Peggy Thomsen, our current mayor.


At the last meeting in December, before the holiday break, the council accepted the latest version of the Complete Streets report. (Staff report here, big pdf of full report here.)  I attended the planning meetings before I was on the council and I was impressed by the work of group of planners and citizens during the complete streets process.

There were two sticking points at the last council meeting that brought out several people to this discussion. The first is tradeoff between bicycle lanes and parking along San Pablo Avenue, and the second is the AC Transit bus stop at the corner of San Pablo Ave. and Solano Ave. Let’s discuss the bus stop first.

The problem is the bus stop for the northbound buses on San Pablo Ave. It currently stops before the stoplight at the Solano intersection, right in front of Montero’s. A much better idea would be to move the bus stop just north of the intersection, in front of Max’s Liquors. That way the bus is not impeded by having to wait for the stoplight to turn green.

From a traffic planning perspective, this is a great solution. For the businesses on the NE corner of the intersection, including Max’s Liquors, this is a bad solution. They would lose the parking spots in front of their stores.

 More generally, the merchants near the intersection are concerned about losing parking spots. While I am supportive of trying to maintain parking spots around the intersection, I am also supportive of getting the bus stop moved to a more rational location, which would be somewhere north of the intersection.

As I stated during the meeting, we had a complete streets planning process (mostly for Buchanan and San Pablo corridors), not a complete San Pablo/Solano intersection planning process. We will have to zoom in on particular trouble spots as we go.

The other sticking point was whether to eliminate parking along one side of San Pablo Avenue to make more room for bicycle routes. As an avid bicyclist and bike commuter, I am strongly opposed to this. No matter how much bright paint you put on the roadway, San Pablo simply is not a safe place to ride bicycles.

I am in favor of some striping for bicycles to solve the “half-block” problem. That’s the problem that occurs when you first turn on to San Pablo on your bike and you find your destination is in the middle of the block. I’m fine with encouraging short trips along San Pablo and keeping bikes off the sidewalks.

But I think San Pablo, a state highway after all, should primarily be used by cars, especially at night and in rainy weather. Cycling at night or in rainy weather is dangerous, although I do it on my commute to and from work. But I never ride my bike at night except to come home from work. It’s not safe unless you are familiar with the route and have memorized where the potholes are, because you can’t seem them at night, especially if a car’s headlights are shining in your eyes.

There are many safe alternative routes for riding bicycles, and Google Maps provides a great way to find them. Too see this, go to Google Maps, find directions from Point A to Point B as usual. Then move your cursor up to the horizontal set of icons that show a car, bus, pedestrian and cyclist. Click the cyclist on the far right, and you will get a route better suited to bikes. Try this route, for example:

 From: Albany City Hall, San Pablo Avenue, Albany, CA

To: DMV El Cerrito Office, Manila Avenue, El Cerrito, CA

Or here is another good one:

 From: Caffe Strada, College Avenue, Berkeley, CA

To: Oakland Kaiser Medical Center, Oakland, CA

In both cases, the car route keeps you on the arterial (San Pablo Ave, College Ave.) while the cycling route takes you on quiet side streets. We have many such options, so routing bikes along San Pablo isn’t a great idea. With many cyclists now carrying GPS-enabled smart phones, you can seek out these routes at any time.

To summarize: I am a big fan of the Complete Streets process, but there are many details to be worked out, and many compromises to be made. That being said, I think we are off to a good start.