2012-09-14 / Front Page

Council ends health care benefit

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After months of deliberations both behind closed doors and in public, the South Portland City Council finally agreed to end the controversial health care benefit for councilors.

The council voted 5-2 at a meeting Wednesday, Sept. 5 to eliminate the health care benefit as of Dec. 1, 2013, but the agreement did not come without some more handwringing and harsh rhetoric that has characterized the debate.

Councilor Tom Coward called the debate a “shameful episode in the city of South Portland.”

“The character of this discussion cannot contribute to encouraging people to run for this body or serve on other bodies in the city,” Coward said.

Coward also pointed out that most of the seats up for election in the upcoming general election in November either have candidates running uncontested or no candidate on the ballot at all. Nomination papers were due in South Portland at the end of the day Monday, Sept. 10. See page five for details.

The council came into Wednesday’s workshop to vote on an order that would have eliminated the health care benefit for any new councilors, and ended the benefit for sitting councilors when their current term expires. Councilor Gerard Jalbert proposed the amendment to eliminate the benefit entirely as of Dec. 1, 2013 as a way to avoid phasing out the benefit and therefore creating what some believed was an inequitable split among councilors who had the option to accept the benefit and councilors who did not.

“We’re not changing it overnight, but at least we have finality,” said Councilor Alan Livingston. “It is finally done, and I am in favor of Councilor Jalbert’s amendment.”

Councilors Tom Blake, Maxine Beecher and Mayor Patti Smith joined Jalbert and Livingston in favor of the amendment. Coward and Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis voted against it, but the two had very different reasons behind their “no” vote.

Coward believes the proposal is not in the longterm interest of the city because it will not attract the most qualified and desirable candidates to run for positions on the council.

De Angelis, meanwhile, restated her assertion that the benefit is illegal under the current city charter and should be done away with immediately, not in 15 months.

She also expressed her frustration with fellow councilors after her proposed amendment to do away with the health care benefit as of December 2012 failed to receive a second, as she said, “for the purpose of discussion.”

“That tells me a lot about the camaraderie on this board,” De Angelis said. “It’s very sad, it’s very painful. I find this whole thing so unpalatable that I can hardly stand to sit up here.” “That tells me a lot about the camaraderie on this board,” De Angelis said. “It’s very sad, it’s very painful. I find this whole thing so unpalatable that I can hardly stand to sit up here.”

A handful of citizens attended the meeting to encourage the council to end the health benefit debate. Gary Crosby said the insurance benefit is significant enough to call into question the motives of a city council candidate.

“When you’re serving the citizens, there should be no room for question. It should be straightforward and clear,” Crosby said.

Albert DiMillo, who originally filed a lawsuit that sparked the discussion and since dropped it to bring the debate into the public forum, was upset with Jalbert’s amendment to the original order.

“You have got to be crazy,” DiMillo said. “I bent over backwards and now you want to steal another year’s worth of health care for new people coming on the board ... This is ridiculous.”

Many of the citizens who spoke at the meeting shared DiMillo’s preference with the original order rather than the amendment, but none were as vocal with their displeasure. Ledge Road resident Dan Mooers stressed the importance of finding finality.

“It’s hurting us to continue this argument,” Mooers said, noting the time the council has “wasted” going back and forth on the issue and sometimes turning the discussion personal, when that time could be better used on another matter.

“That’s not the legislative process,” Mooers said.

Despite the disappointing tenor of the conversation, Councilor Tom Blake did find what he called a “saving grace” in the council’s health care debate.

Blake said he hoped the discussion would allow the council to “seize the opportunity” to appoint a board of community members to take a broader look at compensation for all councils and boards in the city. The city does not have a general compensation policy for all of its board and committees, and Blake said this would be a good time for a blue ribbon committee to look at that. The council will now move forward in discussions to create the blueribbon committee to evaluate compensation, which will be composed of qualified citizens independent of the council itself.

“We need a policy so we’re all on the same page,” Blake said.

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