Employee benefits called into question by township trustee

Employee benefits called into question by township trustee

By Matt Mackinder
Clarkston News Editor

During the July 5 regular meeting of the Independence Township Board of Trustees, a closed session was held to discuss potential changes to employee benefits, and the details were readily available in the packet that the trustees get and that is on the township website.
Two weeks later at the July 19 trustees meeting, Trustee Paul Brown spoke about why that topic had to even go into a closed session.
“For me, we always talk about transparency and to be discussing something in a closed session when, if you go to the actual agenda from that meeting what was publicly available, it was very clear to anyone who read that what we were doing in that closed session and what we were talking about,” Brown said. “We were talking about the new retirement plan for the IAFF (International Association of Firefighters) that was passed and there was a feeling we needed to pass that same benefit on to the other union, non-union employees and the elected officials. I don’t believe that’s something we need to be going into a closed session for, even if we’re allowed to. I think that should be discussed in public so that we are transparent. I would rather have that moved to the top of the agenda to get that out of the way.
“In addition, for me, any time we are going into closed session, that’s a pretty significant thing, to be discussing something out of the public view. I don’t think it should be done at the end of meetings, especially if you are going to come out of one of those and take action because you’re much less likely to have people stay at the meeting for that length of time and then you’re into a closed session at the end of a meeting and then come back if there’s any chance you are taking action. I feel that should happen first; we used to do it that way. I understand we’ve changed that, but I prefer to have it back the way it was.”
Brown then made a motion to include the employee benefits discussion as part of the regular agenda, not in closed session. Trustee Ron Ritchie seconded, with the board then giving unanimous approval.
“The legal opinions related to employee benefits don’t need to be made during closed session,” Brown said. “I just think those should be public.”
“Generally speaking, confidential legal opinions are not discussed in public,” added Township Supervisor Gerald Fisher. “I mean, they can be if the board votes to disclose them.”
“There is a little bit of middle ground there which is that you don’t necessarily have to go into closed session to discuss a legal opinion if everybody has read the opinion, understands it,” Township Attorney Dan Kelly said. “The purpose of the closed session is to answer any questions that the board has. Obviously, that’s going to be by a vote of the board when it goes into closed session, whether or not you feel you need to go into that. Again, that’s for the board to decide. If it remains on the open agenda, the board can certainly have a discussion without disclosing the confidential portions of my opinion. You can have it both ways.”
Brown added more commentary on the importance of closed sessions.
“My greatest concern, and I’ve discussed this with you, Mr. Supervisor, and certainly communicated with you that within 24 hours of the last closed session (on July 5), comments I made in the closed session, specific to me, were shared with employees. First of all, that’s a legal problem because we violate the Open Meetings Act, whoever did it. I heard from two different employees something I said in that closed session was shared with people out of context and certainly you understood how unhappy I was about that, Mr. Supervisor, that that happened. For me, I don’t want that to happen again. Let’s talk about it in public. Then I don’t have to worry about someone sharing what I have to say in closed session. I feel pretty strongly about it.”
Later in the July 19 meeting when the topic of employee benefits came up as part of the regular agenda, Brown asked if any board members would want to recuse themselves from discussion due to conflicts of interest. No one asked to be recused.
“Hearing that there are none, I’m a little confused by that because when we had the motion to change the opt-out payments for health insurance, we had a board member who did recuse themselves because a family member benefited from that and it was for lesser amounts than what this is likely to be,” said Brown. “If a board member has an immediate family member who is going to benefit from this, isn’t that the nature of asking for recusal? Maybe I’m wrong, but it certainly occurred to me that that would tend to be one of the reasons that a board member would want to recuse themselves.”
“I know you are referring to me, but I am not an employee of an IWA contract,” said Township Clerk Cari Neubeck. “I am an elected official, so I would not receive direct benefit from an IWA contract as an elected official. I was hired as an elected official and not as a union employee.”
“But you recused yourself because your husband was going to receive the benefits, a benefit to an employee,” Brown said.
“We’re not discussing that,” responded Neubeck. “This was under closes session and not the item we were discussing.”
Fisher then said that pre-negotiations with IWA for a pension were not determined by anyone on the board.
“Apparently, there was a thought we could consider it and so, it looks like we have some numbers that Rick (Yaeger, township budget and operations analyst) was kind enough to put together for us, and they are substantial,” Fisher said. “The question is, ‘Do we continue with this consideration or do we wait for negotiations?’ If we are waiting for negotiations, there is nothing further to discuss, I assume, at this point.”
Brown spoke again.
“My problem isn’t necessarily with the size of the numbers,” said Brown. “It’s with the fact that I have yet to see what the impact is to the fund balance. For the layman, that means we are going to write a check but no one can tell me what the balance in the bank is going to be when we write the check over the next three years. To me, I don’t know how we move forward without that piece of information. That’s my number one. Number two, and this is again referencing the publicly available information from the (July 5) agenda which I think made it pretty clear what the intention was. One of my problems with this is it says we want to become equitable, but we haven’t been equitable for a long time because the fire department had a defined benefit plan. No one ever said to give us the defined benefit plan. Why, because we made this change for the fire department that they negotiated, and gave up a really big thing to get this, and it was a trade-off, I look at that as there was a certain amount of money that it would have taken to pay the defined benefit plan. They gave that up for new hires and get this instead. We really don’t know yet the ultimate cost of making that change. We think it’s in the benefit or the board wouldn’t have done it. To just come out and do this now, and clearly it says we want to do this as a sign of good faith, but what we are talking about is probably on a three-year contract would be more money as increase in wages and all three years added up.
“To me, doing this prior to negotiations is just taking the biggest carrot we might have and just saying, ‘Here’s the carrot,’ and then we’ll negotiate. I never did it that way, so I kind of have an issue doing it that way for that reason. I think it’s a very valuable thing to negotiate with them, but again, how do you do that not understanding what it’s going to do to the fund balance? We don’t know yet. My third problem with this is we talk about this as a way to attract and retain great employees. I support that 100 percent, but I don’t believe we have a problem with is attracting and retaining elected officials. I don’t think elected officials should be included in this to get this big increase because that’s just an elected position and I would not include them in this. That’s my two cents.”
Fisher added that he isn’t sure that there is a consensus or if it will take a motion to take any action.
“It would take a motion to act on this affirmatively, but we’re not really doing anything other than finishing our discussion,” said Fisher. “I hear no action to take affirmatively.”

PHOTO: The Independence Township Board of Trustees meets on July 19. Photo: Matt Mackinder

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