NORTH OGDEN -- Email exchanges reveal extensive discussion among several city council members about cutting employee benefits before a change of heart at the last minute the day of a Jan. 24 council meeting.
The audience at the meeting that night had been led to believe a benefit change was part of the plan, as the agenda suggested, and the council members put the blame for confusion on city employees.
The email records, which cover Jan. 12-30, were obtained by the Standard-Examiner through an open records request filed with the city.
On Jan. 24, city employees packed the council meeting, concerned about rumors they would have to pay more for their health insurance premiums.
A few read letters citing reasons not to change the premium structure and the need to keep the benefits package as it is. Currently, the city pays 90 percent of employees' insurance premiums.
The meeting agenda stated that the council planned to discuss and/or take action on changing the percentage that the city and employees pay for premiums on health and dental insurance.
Councilman Wade Bigler said at the meeting it had not been his plan to cut benefits that night and he didn't know where that information came from. He said he only wanted to form a committee to look at the benefits package.
The emails reveal extensive discussions among some council members about changing employees' benefits structure.
Emails regarding the issue start as early as Jan. 12, when Councilman Justin Fawson sent an email to Bigler: "Wade, Are you going to request the reduction to employee benefits be put on the agenda for the next council meeting? I just didn't want to put it on there if you already asked for it."
On Jan. 14, Bigler replied, "Yes."
On Jan. 17, Bigler sent the following email to City Manager Ed Dickie for inclusion on the council agenda: "City employee medical benefits: discuss and vote."
In the same Jan. 17 email, Bigler also requested reports for two scenarios: how much the city would save over the next year if the city paid 80 percent of the premiums, and how much it would save by paying at 70 percent.
On Jan. 15, Fawson also sent an email to all city council members, Dickie and Mayor Richard Harris regarding his goals for the city, which included: "Align the total compensation of city employees more closely with the private sector."
In the email, Fawson said he wanted "immediate changes" to benefits.
Bigler said in a telephone interview and in an email response to questions in preparation of this story that he never mentioned anything about putting insurance premiums on the agenda, only benefits, and that the individual who prepared the agenda assumed that's what he wanted.
However, the emails do talk about cutting benefits to 80 percent or 70 percent.
In the Jan. 17 email, Bigler wrote, "I would like for Debbie to send via email to council how much savings there would be for the next 12 months to lower city employee medical benefits from 90%, to 80% and 70%. Please send these two numbers to council in the packet."
Council members receive their packets on the Friday before a meeting, and Bigler did not request a change to the wording on the agenda item. He did request a change to the order of the presentation and requested that his name be put on specific agenda items the day of the meeting.
A number of the emails obtained from the city show Bigler corresponded with other council members about changing the benefits package, not just forming a committee as he stated at the council meeting was his intent.
At the meeting, he told employees they may end up with higher salaries and better benefits, or otherwise, but they wouldn't know until after the study.
On the day of the meeting, several emails were exchanged among Fawson, Bigler and Councilman Kent Bailey. Bailey questioned why Dickie was concerned about the potential change.
"Ed has gotten very excited about this proposed change. Is it because of the way it affects him personally or is this an issue that has earned him points with the city employees? I know he is the one who convinced the earlier council to offer 90% instead of the 80% they were previously getting."
Dickie has resigned his position to take a job as city manager of Santa Clara. His last day will be March 9.
Harris said in an interview for this article he has learned from this process not to make assumptions about what council members are asking for, but also said there was precedent that made it easy to assume what Bigler wanted the agenda item to say.
Last year, Bigler moved to cut the city's premium payments to 80 percent, and that failed by a 4-1 vote. Harris said he assumed that the same scenario was going to play out at the Jan. 24 council meeting.
Bigler also sent an email to council members Fawson, Bailey and Cheryl Stoker, dated 5:29 a.m. Jan. 24, the day of the council meeting.
"I'd like to know how each of you are feeling about 80% tomorrow night in light of all the employees and Ed's clamor," he wrote.
"Do you feel as you did before you were council members? Cut it to 80% now and then form the committee to look at every other aspect of their financial package?"
Fawson, Bailey and Bigler exchanged emails that day, going over the idea of not cutting the benefits that night. Bigler sent another e-mail to Fawson and Bailey shortly before the meeting saying he was relieved they had talked and that he didn't plan to put forth a motion to cut benefits and then have the motion fail.
He also sent an email to Dickie and other staff members around 3 p.m., saying he would not put forth a motion to cut benefits. Harris and Dickie each said in separate interviews they didn't see the email before the meeting.
Fawson said in a phone interview that the council members were never trying to skirt the issue but that people can change their minds regarding an issue.
He and Bigler said there is much more to the issue than what is stated in the emails. Bigler said it was unfair to only discuss emails, when many talks had gone on about the benefits package.
He has wanted a study done for more than a year and said he could never get backing from the former council or staff. He said he wants to look residents in the eye and know he is spending their money wisely.
He also said he has been working with some members of the new council since the election to ensure that will happen.
The emails also discuss a private meeting held among Bigler, Fawson and Bailey. The three said the meeting was held before Fawson and Bailey, both elected in November, were sworn in at the first city council meeting of the year, so the meeting did not violate the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act.
Attorney Tim Smith, a member of the Utah Freedom of Information Hotline response group, said that while the three did not violate the letter of the open meetings law, the meeting did violate the spirit of that law.
He said there should never be discussions of strategy in private meetings because it undermines the statute.
Harris used the same words regarding spirit of the law and the meeting among the three, but also admitted he met with the three men the day before they were sworn in to go over some goals and to try to unify the council.
He said he is fine with council members going over issues in emails but does not like the idea of decisions being made before council meetings.
All three council members said they do not believe they violated any open meetings requirements, technically or in spirit.
Bailey said he had talked to several people who told him it should be OK for him to meet in private before taking the oath of office.
Bigler said he met with Fawson and Bailey several times before and after the election to talk about issues facing the city and that did not violate anything.
"We have met many times over the last six months. We have a lot of work to do in this city," Bigler said in a phone interview.
Harris said he wants the council to move forward in a positive manner after having a rough summer and fall with the heated debate over location and cost of a proposed city public works facilty.
"I think our council has the desire to move forward. We need to heal."