My apologies for taking such a long break since my last post in April. My main task last summer was getting my 23-year old son back on his feet after he was hit by a car while commuting to work on his motorcycle.
He broke his left femur in the crash in May and is now walking with a slight limp and a long titanium rod running the length of his femur. He gets stronger every week and he is already (you guessed it) back on his motorcycle. Grrrrr. I wanted him to inherit my love of two-wheeled vehicles, but this is not what I had in mind.
The council had the month of August off, so nothing dramatic occurred on August—but then, hardly anything dramatic has ever occurred in August, except the start of WWI. It’s a slow news month. In July the appeal of the Occupy the Farm CEQA lawsuit was emphatically denied by the appeals court, and construction will start this fall on assisted living center and retail complex. That’s great news.
The other good news is that the remodeling of the Safeway on Solano has begun. The store will remain open during the project, much of which will be completed at night. The exterior footprint of the building will stay the same, with the addition of some fresh paint and parking lot repairs. We won’t be getting a fancy new Safeway like so many cities around us, due in part (only in part) to neighborhood criticisms during the planning. This is an example of how in Albany, when to comes to development, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.
There was incremental progress on several issues over the summer, but most of them have come before the council this fall in our first two meetings, or will be on the agenda soon, so I’ll discuss them in that context.
My last post in April concerned SB-277, the bill in Sacramento sponsored by state senator Richard Pan. It passed easily. This bill eliminates the personal and religious exemptions to vaccines for children attending schools in California. Another measure, SB-792, also passed. This legislation requires vaccinations for child care workers and volunteers. A good recent article on the topic is here.
In another recent piece of good news, the anti-vaccine referendum that was started after the passage of SB-277 has failed to gather enough signatures.
Our first meeting after the August break was on Sept. 8. It was interesting. It started well. The police chief reported he had produced a biennial report, available here.
The main item for me the night of Sept. 8 was the issue of whether or not to align the medical benefits of council members with those of the city employees. Many city councils give their members the right to participate in the medical plan for the staff, but a former Albany City Council had gone beyond that. Good Damin Esper coverage in the CC Times here.
The agenda is here (it includes video link, so it may load slowly)
A former city council had decided that their voter-approved reimbursement of $300/month was insufficient, and also decided, without consulting voters, to increase medical benefits above the level of the city employees, and to give themselves an in lieu payment of about $700/month if they chose not to be on the city’s plan (the in lieu benefit was not paid in cash, but was deposited into a 403-b retirement plan). In effect, those council members who took the in lieu benefit more than tripled their salary without voter approval.
Like many Albany residents, I thought that stunt was unethical, and I wrote about it previously on my blog here.
An excellent report by our then interim financial manager Paul Rankin revealed just how out of line Albany’s council benefits were with respect to a comparison group of nearby cities of similar size.
Of the 26 cities, 20 (77%) include provisions for city council members to receive health benefits. Of the 20 cities offering health, five (25%) cover all costs, fourteen (70%) covered a portion, and one (5%) provided zero dollars. Of the 20 cities that offered health benefits, only the City of Albany offered higher medical benefits to council members than to other employees.
Ten cities that provided health insurance to council members offered an in lieu benefit upon proof of coverage. The average in lieu benefit payment was $500 for the agencies that offered one. Albany was the only city that offered an in lieu benefit of more than $700.
Based on that report, in February 2014 the previous council decided to eliminate the in lieu benefit, a change that I advocated for and voted in favor of. For our Sept. 8 meeting less than a month ago, the city attorney provided a report that showed that the Albany City Council was on questionable legal ground by having a benefit level above that of its employees, and faced a risk of litigation.
Based on the city attorney’s opinion, the council voted to eliminate its overly generous benefits and to align its benefits to those of the city employees. This was a long-awaited victory, and I was glad it was finally over.
But during the process, council member Nick Pilch seemed to have his doubts, and was the only council member to vote against reducing the level of benefits. The discussion that night was videotaped. The item is introduced at 1:14:40, and councilmember Pilch’s comments begin at 1:23:20.
Pilch indicated that if the council doesn’t get medical benefits higher than those of the staff, he wanted to revisit the in lieu benefits issue, which was a legal (although in my opinion, underhanded) way of having the council pay itself more money.
To use an old-fashioned word, I was flabbergasted. I was disappointed again when Mayor Peter Maass stated that he felt not enough people were interested in running for the council and that perhaps council members should get paid more.
I found this logic a little strange, since when Maass and I ran for council in 2012, there were seven candidates for three open positions. It is true, however, that in 2014, only three people ran for three open seats on the council, and as a cost-savings measure, the council cancelled the election.
Secondly, the Maass/Pilch argument was out of touch with the reality of public service in Albany. I can appreciate why city staff members get in lieu benefits—they work very long hours and are often in attendance at meetings late into the evening. On the other hand, the city council is a part-time job at most. Given the hours we work, I don’t think we deserve in lieu benefits.
Albany school board members get paid only about $200 a month. I’m pretty sure that is what I got when I served on the school board in 2002-06. School board members can participate in the district’s medical plan, but there has never been an attempt by school board members to get either higher benefits than teachers or in lieu benefits.
Our Planning and Zoning Commissioners works as hard as council members, and have done a tremendous job on the city’s new general plan. What do they get for their efforts? Nothing. No cash payments, no medical benefits, nothing.
In my case, as someone who typically works more than 40 hours/wk, the constraint is not money, it’s time. It’s hard to find the time to hold a public office, especially if you still have kids at home (which I no longer do, except after motorcycle accidents). A salary of $300/month ($200 after taxes) doesn’t compensate for the lost time. Increasing council pay wouldn’t change that reality.
My feeling is that if council members deserve more money (and I don’t think they do) then they should find a way to take the issue to the voters, and structure the extra income so that current members of the council are not eligible for the raises.