OGDEN — A second elected Weber County official who recently left office is seeking a cash payout in lieu of health benefits, allowed under current county policy but the focus of increased scrutiny and questioning.

James Ebert, who left office as county commissioner on Jan. 7 after losing his reelection bid last year, has filed paperwork with the county seeking a $64,495.20 payout, per the policy in question. Terry Thompson, who stepped down as sheriff on Jan. 7 after not running for reelection last year, is seeking $51,898.80.

Thompson's request came before commissioners for consideration on Feb. 19, but they tabled action. His request was to come back to commissioners for consideration on Tuesday, along with Ebert's new request, but County Commissioner Scott Jenkins said Monday that he planned to pull the items from the agenda.

"We're still wrestling with that, frankly," he said.

The county's legal advisors have determined that commissioners aren't obliged to provide the payout, that it's a policy question, Jenkins said. Now, he said, officials are trying to sort through the particulars of the issue to decide the next step.

Commissioner Gage Froerer, who blasted the policy at the Feb. 19 meeting as "terrible," offered a slightly different take. It's up to county commissioners to set policy on whether to allow the payouts, he said. But the fact that agreements on the proposed payouts have been sent to Ebert and Thompson and returned by both, signed, may oblige commissioners to honor them, even if commissioners haven't taken formal action on the paperwork.

"That's a question we have to get to," Froerer said.

Christopher Crockett, the deputy Weber County attorney, said Monday that he had issued a written opinion on the matter to commissioners, but didn't delve into its contents, citing attorney-client privilege. He had told the officials on Feb. 19 that whether to allow the cash payouts — equal to five years worth of health benefits, per the guidelines — was a call to be made at commissioners' discretion.

Four former elected leaders have received cash payouts per the policy since it was created on Oct. 14, 2014, including the three county commissioners who approved it, Matthew Bell, Jan Zogmaister and, most recently, Kerry Gibson. Dee Smith, a former county attorney, has also received the benefit, and the amounts disbursed to the four have ranged from around $54,000 to $66,000.

What particularly irks Froerer, he said, is that the policy is available to former elected leaders, but not rank-and-file workers. Retiring employees may seek up to five years worth of health insurance payments on departing, but not a cash equivalent of the benefit.

"Elected officials should be on the the same level as hired people here at the county," Froerer said. The ability of departing elected officials to get a cash payout, he thinks, should be eliminated.

Commissioner Jim Harvey offered a similar take. "It's my opinion we all work for Weber County, just in different jobs," he said Monday.

Commissioners wrestled with the issue last August as well, agreeing to changes that would gradually phase the policy out through 2026. The requests for payouts by Thompson, and now Ebert, have reignited the debate.

Neither Ebert nor Thompson responded to queries Monday seeking comment.

A 'CUSHION'

The rationale for letting elected leaders opt for a cash payout isn't clear.

Harvey said Gibson told him that payouts to departing elected officials were meant as a "cushion to get back in the private sector," particularly for leaders involved in unpopular decisions.

Others, though, were unaware of the reasoning.

"I wish I knew. I really don't. It doesn't make sense to me," Froerer said. "What, are they thinking they're entitled to additional benefits? I can't answer the question."

Minutes from the Oct. 14, 2014, meeting don't shed any light. They only spell out the change, noting that before the policy shift, departing elected leaders had to first serve eight years and that they could only tap five years worth of health benefits, like eligible retiring employees.

"The changes now allow accumulating five years of health insurance for serving four years, unless they have been removed from office, and eligible elected official retirees may choose as an alternate to the health insurance benefit or medical expense reimbursement account to receive a cash equivalent of five years of health insurance premiums," the meeting minutes read.

Per last August's changes, eligible elected leaders who took office only before Jan. 1, 2019, may tap the payout benefit on departing through its phaseout in 2026, though the amount they'll get is to gradually decline. Nine officials, including Ebert, Thompson, Harvey and Jenkins, fall under its parameters, though Harvey indicated he'd be reticent to tap into the perk.

"What I will say — I'm not going to vote in a manner that would line my own pocket," he said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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