Atwater debates ending City Council perks

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 15, 2013 

— The debate over City Council pay and allowances is still brewing.

Although all of the council members have voluntarily given up their pay and allowances, they weighed their options during a Monday night meeting on whether to permanently eliminate the perks for future councils in Atwater.

Those perks used to cost the city more than $100,000 a year with salaries, cell phone reimbursements, car allowances, insurance costs and in-lieu insurance payments. However, those were done away with as the city wrestled with a severe fiscal crisis that resulted in several layoffs and other cuts.

Councilman Craig Mooneyham, who declined to take the pay and allowances when he was elected in 2010, had the item placed on Monday's agenda. He wants council pay and benefits totally eliminated for the current and future councils.

First-year Councilman Larry Bergman agreed with that sentiment, noting that with the council's low approval rating, he would like to regain public support by putting a permanent stop to the payouts, which he said the city can't afford.

Mooneyham said he thinks the council shouldn't revisit possible allowances, at least until the city corrects itself financially. If that happens, the council could pass a new ordinance to reinstate pay.

But that idea was met with resistance from Councilman Jeff Rivero, who said he is concerned that an unpaid council could open the door to special-interest groups who could back council candidates and have influence over the city.

"The one thing that I do not want to see happen to the city of Atwater is having special interests by City Council members," he said before making a motion to waive council benefits through 2014 and delay action on the item until staff can put together a report on the top-five campaign contributors dating to 2008.

His motion passed on a 4-1 vote. Because the vote wasn't unanimous, council members will continue to voluntarily decline their pay and allowances instead of having them revoked.

Mooneyham, who voted against the motion, said he doesn't think special-interest groups are a concern in Atwater.

"This is a voluntary, part-time position, this is not a full-time position that consumes 40 hours a week of our time," he said. "The city is six square miles -- I don't think any compensation or any (political action committees) could come in and do anything significant enough. We all have jobs or we are retired people up here. I don't think we're in danger of being led astray by any outside influences."

The issue will be revisited at a future council meeting when staff comes back with the requested information.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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