Last year, the Contra Costa civil grand jury asked Martinez, Pleasant Hill and other cities that pay for elected officials' health coverage to reconsider the practice.
Martinez and Pleasant Hill took strikingly different approaches.
After robust debate during several meetings, the Pleasant Hill council agreed the city will pay 50 percent of the Kaiser Permanente premium. They also eliminated dental and vision benefits and cut the cash payment for those who decline health insurance from $400 to $200 per month. The changes will go into effect after the November election.
Martinez leaders, on the other hand, briefly discussed council compensation and made small changes. Beginning in January, current council members will pay for doctor visit co-pays and hospital stays and higher costs for prescriptions. The city will continue paying the entire cost of their health and dental insurance.
According to data provided to Bay Area News Group for the 2011 calendar year, Martinez paid $22,058 for Mayor Rob Schroder's health coverage, $9,582 for Councilman Mark Ross' and $7,791 for Councilwoman Lara DeLaney, who did not take medical benefits through her job with Contra Costa County. In lieu of medical coverage, the city deposited $7,010 into deferred compensation accounts for council members Janet Kennedy and Mike Menesini. The city also paid $2,271 for dental benefits for Kennedy and Menesini.
"I don't think it's out of line, especially
Kris Hunt, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, doesn't buy that argument.
"Do you want people accused of running to get benefits?" Hunt said. "I think that original grand jury report was quite shocking, and I'm glad some (cities) are looking at this."
Asked whether he believes council members who decline medical coverage should get a $603 monthly payment instead, Schroder said, "I think that's a personal decision. I can tell you that I would probably not take it."
Kennedy, who has health benefits through her husband, said she took the in-lieu payment when she worked for other public agencies. Not providing an in-lieu payment would be akin to "penalizing" council members who have health insurance through a job or a spouse, she said.
"If I had taken the benefits it would have cost the city more," Kennedy said. "I had the ability, too, to take double insurance, and I didn't."
Menesini, who works for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, said council members basically get the same compensation, even if they take it in different forms.
"My middle-income family does not have the luxury of forgoing the remuneration provided to council members for my work on the council ... so I am not inclined to do so," Menesini wrote in an email.
In Pleasant Hill, city leaders took on the issue of council compensation after they had imposed higher health insurance contributions on city employees.
Mayor John Hanecak favored dropping the health benefits. In 2011, the city paid nearly $1,850 for Hanecak's dental and vision benefits, but he declined health insurance and the $400 per month in-lieu payment.
"Just like when I volunteer to work for an organization, I don't expect benefits for that," said Hanecak, adding that most part-time employees don't get health insurance.
According to data from the city, in 2011 Pleasant Hill paid $6,312 for former Councilwoman Terri Williamson's health insurance. The city deposited $4,800 into a deferred compensation account for Councilman David Durant. The city paid $961 for Councilman Jack Weir's vision and dental benefits and $4,600 in-lieu of health coverage. Councilman Michael Harris gave up the in-lieu payment last year, but not before the city had deposited $2,200 into his deferred compensation account.
Durant said he has toyed with the question of turning down the in-lieu payment.
"Am I offended that a public official is receiving that benefit? The answer is I'm not," Durant said. "I don't think it's a ton of money, I don't think it's outrageous, and in light of council members who do this and put a lot of time into the job, it doesn't offend my sensibilities."
Responses to the grand jury report varied. For example, Concord did not make any changes to council compensation. After laying off about a third of the workforce and implementing furloughs, in July 2011 the Hercules City Council eliminated health, dental and life insurance for council members.
"It sends a message to the employees and the community," Hercules Mayor Dan Romero said. "It's not a big thing but I think after everything that had been going on in Hercules, it was a big deal to show we were willing to cut this."
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.