In Our View: Futile Fidgeting

It's time for Vancouver city councilors to pay portion of health benefits



Should Vancouver city councilors pay part of the premiums for their city-provided health insurance? Absolutely! Other nonunion city employees do (for dependents’ coverage), and the city councilors themselves have asked unionized workers to increase their payments. But the politicians are having a devil of a time imposing that same fair-share commitment on themselves. For two months now, the council members have dawdled on this issue, and several have made comments that signal a troubling disconnect with the real world and even with the rest of city government.

A Sunday Columbian story by Andrea Damewood included recent written and verbal comments from Mayor Tim Leavitt that were intended to explain or defend all the dawdling, when in fact the result of Leavitt’s logic actually had the reverse effect. For example: “I can understand the desire to send a ‘message’, or ‘set an example’ for city employees.” Then why, sir, can’t you do so?

“However, I also recognize that the city council are not technically ‘employees’ of the city; we are not compensated as full-time employees.” Mr. Mayor, that reasoning only makes your constituents wonder why council members even get health benefits in the first place. Many part-time workers do not. Why do you? Because you’re special? Deserving of more privilege than already is extended to you as public figures?

Leavitt added: “although for certainly several council members, the responsibilities are in reality full-time.” They work that hard by choice, sir, and they knew the nature of the job when they begged voters to elect them.

To be clear, councilors Jack Burkman and Bart Hansen have exempted themselves from our criticism on this matter. Burkman proposed on Nov. 3 that council members pay 15 percent of their dependents’ health care premiums, and Hansen joined him in voting for that plan. (Burkman is on the city health insurance plan; Hansen is not). But Leavitt and councilors Jeanne Stewart, Pat Campbell, Jeanne Harris and Larry Smith opposed the plan. A month later, fortunately, the issue is still alive, and it’s time for the council to do the right thing.

Part of the problem is logic like this from Stewart: “I’m uneasy about why it’s getting pushed the way it is now.” What better way to have it pushed than in repeated proposals at public meetings of a deliberative body? Stewart also played the we-work-so-hard card: “In order to get the job done, there are expenses that are incurred that right now council members are absorbing.” Only on their own volition, though. “It’s a different kind of work. I want people to understand and recognize that, I guess.” People already do understand that. They understood all of that last week when The Columbian reported that Clark County commissioners were accepting raises, and the public put up such a squawk that commissioners changed their minds the next day.

More from Stewart: “I do not want to be used to create a precedent that is going to take place that has not been discussed with workers.” But the idea was presented Oct. 18 and discussed Nov. 1.

Any sense of urgency dissipated long ago. As Burkman explained in Sunday’s story, he discussed his proposal with each councilor before bringing it up in October. “So the idea that I surprised them or torpedoed them, I don’t see where that’s coming from. Where’s the surprise? I did everything straight up in this.”

Fidgeting and fussing is not leadership. Flawed reasoning leads to sleepless nights. Ask Clark County commissioners. Vancouver city councilors should stop treating themselves like royalty, recognize that health benefits for part-time work is a luxury in itself, and join Burkman and Hansen in supporting paying a portion of the health benefits.