“How can you genuinely say you believe in pension reform but take a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude?” Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said yesterday during an interview regarding amending an elected official pension ordinance she introduced in the spring. “The whole idea of entitlement is out-of-sync with what your constituency is trying to achieve. To me, you’re not truly representing the people. It’s important to lead by example.”
When she drafted the ordinance, which will be up for first passage at Monday’s council meeting at City Hall, she felt increasing the number of years of service from six to 10 for council members to be eligible for a pension would be sufficient.
However, after conducting more research, both on her own and with a committee that included Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla, Finance Director Ernie Zmyslinski and members of the general public Rick Cascella and Bill Russo, she learned that there weren’t any negative impacts on candidates moving forward, as well as those whose pension plans had been eliminated as a result of changes to the Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS).
Now, she has developed a different approach. In fact, she feels it might be necessary to abolish the pensions altogether and plans to bring the matter up at Monday’s meeting.
If the pensions are not eliminated, she said she can tolerate pensions after 10 years of service, but thinks keeping it at six is “ludicrous.”
“I’m willing to listen to what the council members have to say because I recognize some of them have been in office for quite some time, but I feel the salaries are competitive compared to some of the other legislators,” said Vella-Wilkinson.
She said a majority of the committee members voted in favor of changing it to 10 years and they want to go forward with that. Cascella is one of them.
At first, he wondered if it would discourage people from running for office. In the end, he doesn’t think that would be the case.
“The lion’s share of people run because they have a calling,” he said. “If they can last 10 years they must be pretty good and if they dedicate themselves to the position, it’s a reward. People don’t run for the pension.”
Vella-Wilkinson agrees, saying she feels people run because they believe in public service as opposed to financial rewards.
“You’re not going to get rich on the money you are paid for the job,” she said.
Council members currently make $10,000 per year for their positions. If the ordinance is passed, it will take effect in 2012 and eligible council members would earn a base pay of $1,500, plus $200 a year times the number of years the council member served.
“I don’t intend to take it even if I do qualify for it,” said Vella-Wilkinson.
Cascella said the ordinance is a nice gesture from the council. He feels moving this type of legislation forward shows constituents that the council cares about the “little things” and is not going to ignore the public’s desire to have the city be more efficient and fair.
“As of late, the vocal public’s opinion of our council has taken a negative spin,” he said. “The more we work on those little things, they snowball into something that has a real effect on things.”
Vella-Wilkinson said there were a number of constituents that contacted her and felt it was such a small amount of money compared to what they pay for city workers, fire fighters and police officers that they didn’t mind the council pension. She has another viewpoint.
“It all adds up,” she said.