An Alhambra councilman received the highest health coverage — nearly $25,000 in 2009 — of nearly 50 San Gabriel Valley council members. Yet, it's Monterey Park council members — who in some cases received thousands less than their Alhambra counterparts — who are in violation of state law and are being asked to pay the city back.
The difference, as the Pasadena Star-News reported earlier this week, is that Alhambra is a charter city and Monterey Park is not. As a result, Monterey Park is bound to a state law that mandates that health and welfare benefits cannot exceed top paid staff members.
"The community next door didn't interpret the law correctly as a general law city," City Manager Julio Fuentes said. In contrast, "We're a charter city, and charter cities have the ability to set salaries and benefits. Just because there's a piece of legislation on the state level it doesn't apply unless there's a constitutional change."
But even if Alhambra did not violate any law, the issue shines a light on council member health benefits, which totaled roughly $100,000 last year, and raises the question how much is appropriate. Council members in Alhambra get full coverage of health, dental, and vision. (A full chart comparing local council member compensation packages can be found here).
"We create local governments to be responsive to local interests, from how much you pay your lifeguards to how much you pay your city council," a director at the Legislative Analysts Office, Marianne O'Malley, said. Alhambra is "a chartered city, so you've got authority to make decisions regarding these. Theoretically, local people are holding locally elected people responsible."
Councilman Stephen Sham — who received $23,484 in 2009 and $26,540 in 2010 — claimed the highest health coverage payout of any council member in eight San Gabriel Valley Cities. But the city as a whole is not the highest spender on benefits. Pasadena and Rosemead both trumped Alhambra, according to 2009 data compiled by the state controller's office. As for health benefits per population, San Gabriel actually came out the highest, and Alhambra and Monterey Park are squarely in the middle.
Sham, whose benefits were reported widely in the Chinese Press, feels unfairly maligned. “I’ve never voted for my health benefit; nobody on the City Council has been involved in determining the actual amount of health benefit they receive. I pick the items of the health care package according to my need and the condition of my family, but the actual amount is set by the insurance company,” Sham said in Mandarin. As to why his take was so high, the explanation he offered is that "the amount of health care benefit received by each individual depends on that person's personal situations and family conditions. Some people get less because they might already have some aspects covered by their health care packages with their full-time employers."
City Manager Julio Fuentes said that full coverage for City Council members makes sense, in particular because their wages are smaller than that of full-time staff, who are responsible to cover part of their benefits. Council members earn $857 a month, and $927 when holding the rotating position of mayor. Others argue that full coverage does not make sense for a part-time job, and some cities, such as South Pasadena and Temple City, provide none or very limited benefits. Fuentes maintains that it is incorrect to assume that being a council member is a part-time job. While people think, he said, "that they come in twice a month and vote on an agenda, that's not true. They're out in the community seven days a week."