Should an elected official who serves for a relatively short time get the same benefits as a long-term rank-and-file employee?
It is a question that comes up regularly in local government. Orange County Supervisor-elect Shawn Nelson is facing it now, as we reported Tuesday.
And the issue came before the Mission Viejo City Council for the fourth time in three years at its meeting this week.
Councilwoman Cathy Schlicht brought a motion to kill the option of council members Frank Ury and Trish Kelley have of taking lifetime medical benefits after 12 years of service. Her motion failed.
The two council members can qualify once they’ve served three consecutive terms, or 12 years on the dais. They are the only two eligible council members because they were elected to the council before a 2007 change in benefit plans, so their benefits options were grandfathered in.
This is a politically sticky issue, as evidenced by the machinations of Mission Viejo council members in recent years.
In 2008, council members unanimously voted to strip themselves from being eligible for the benefit plan. City Attorney William Curley later advised the council that although it was legal to strip council members of the benefit plan, it could open the city up to lawsuits because of a lack of court precedent.
Curley said it would be wiser to allow council members to opt in or out of a medical plan, thereby avoiding potential litigation against the city. Council members took Curley’s advice and decided to rescind the decision.
Monday night, Ury repeated Curley’s argument. Ury said he couldn’t support Schlicht’s motion because of the possibility of lawsuit by a council member against the city.
It’s an interesting argument for Ury to make, considering only he and Mayor Trish Kelley could possibly qualify for lifetime benefits in the future, and only he and Kelley could possibly be in a position to sue the city over the benefits.
So is Ury protecting the city from himself? Or is he worried that Kelley would sue the city to get the benefits?
Ury did not return a phone call yesterday for clarification.
Kelley said she was covered under her husband’s medical plan, but she didn’t rule out taking advantage of the benefits should she no longer be eligible through him.
As Mission Viejo knows, lawsuits can be expensive. But so are lifetime medical benefits.
In 2008, Councilman John Paul Ledesma noted that the average cost of a health plan — when taken advantage of for 24 years after retirement — is $257,000. Ledesma was the only member of the council to go against Curley’s advice and vote against the benefit twice.
Last night, only Ledesma voted with Schlicht to abolish the amendment. Ury, Kelley and Dave Leckness voted to keep it. Ledesma dismissed the notion that there was a unique threat of litigation, saying that “anyone with a few dollars can file a claim against the city” and that there wasn’t a “high standard.”