OGDEN — As expected, Weber County commissioners eliminated a controversial perk that allowed elected officials to get a payout on leaving office that has ranged up to $66,000 for the six who have benefited from it.
“It was bad policy and it’s self-serving and I’m glad it’s gone,” said Commissioner Jim Harvey. Only elected officials — not other county employees — had been able to tap seek the payouts, and Harvey, like fellow Commissioners Scott Jenkins and Gage Froerer, said benefits should apply equally to all classes of county workers.
The six who have benefited from the policy, approved in 2014, have collectively received $366,564.28. They include four former county commissioners, a former sheriff and a former county attorney.
Commissioners wrestled with the issue last August, approving a change to gradually phase out the policy provision allowing for payouts. But it reemerged last month after two officials who left office in January sought it, former Sheriff Terry Thompson and former County Commissioner James Ebert. It proved to be a thorny issue, generating calls and emails from Weber County residents opposed to the policy, according to Jenkins, and critical public comment at commission meetings.
Kerry Wayne, of Marriott-Slaterville, who has persistently hammered against the policy, said he understands the need for tax money to run government, tax hikes even. But he can’t understand “how these giveaways relate to responsible financial stability,” he told commissioners during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting.
Lori Brinkerhoff, of Hooper, lamented “the lack of ethics” in the initial creation of the policy allowing payouts, equivalent to the five years worth of health benefits the officials would otherwise have been able to get.
“We understand you three were not on the commission at that time, and yet I appreciate your ethics now in seeking to reverse what was poor public policy,” she told commissioners, also during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Per the change, elected officials also won’t qualify for five years worth of health benefits after they leave, unless, per the broader policy, they’ve been with the county since before Jan. 1, 2008, among other requirements. They had been able to seek health benefits or the cash payout after just four years in elective office.
The rationale for the payout provision has never been publicly articulated by anyone with firsthand knowledge of it. Former County Commissioners Jan Zogmaister, Matt Bell and Kerry Gibson, who all received payouts, created the provision but haven’t responded to Standard-Examiner queries on the matter.
Froerer asked Christopher Crockett, the deputy Weber County attorney, if he knew the reasoning. Crockett, in response, suggested looking in the minutes of the Oct. 14, 2014, commission meeting when the policy was approved, though he’s reviewed them and not found answers.
Also Tuesday, officials approved agreements with Ebert and Thompson, allowing cash payouts for them. They did so grudgingly, after Crockett advised commissioners that, per the policy in place before Tuesday’s action, the two recently departed officials were legally entitled to them.
Ebert and Thompson became “vested” — entitled to the payout — after they finished their terms of office in “good standing,” per language of the old policy, Crockett said.
The Weber County Human Resources office had sent blank agreements to Ebert and Thompson in early February giving them the option of getting payouts, as well as checks for the payout amounts. Both returned the paperwork, signed.
The mailing of the two agreements, without prior approval by commissioners, spurred another line of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Being sent without the permission of the commissioners, that’s north of a $100,000 mistake,” Toby Mileski, of Pleasant View, said during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s gathering. Thompson is entitled to $51,898.80, per the old policy, while Ebert is entitled to $64,495.20.
Sarah Swan, Weber County’s human resources director, has said her office followed standard procedure in mailing the agreements and checks before bringing the paperwork to commissioners’ attention. But it bothered Froerer, at least.
“It seems just backwards to do something after the checks have been signed,” he said.
Paige Greenhalgh, who handles payroll in the human resources office, said in response that the procedure has been changed. From here on out, payouts on contractual matters will happen only after review by commissioners, she said. Greenhalgh appeared at Tuesday’s meeting in place of Swan, who was out of the office.
The payouts were $66,293.83 for Smith, $65,529.60 for Bell, $64,494.60 for Gibson and $53,852.25 for Zogmaister.
When his payout first came up for debate last month, Thompson, citing his 30 years of service in the sheriff’s office, said he had earned the benefit. Since then, neither he nor any other of the five payout recipients have responded to Standard-Examiner queries seeking comment on the issue.