Warren officials spar after council members give themselves lifetime health care

Warren — City officials sparred Monday over a controversial move by lame-duck council members who gave themselves free lifetime health care benefits, even as some members said the measure was "added at the last minute" with few details; another "couldn't make heads nor tails of it."

Tensions flared after the Macomb Daily reported Sunday that seven council members had unanimously voted in September to change city rules, allowing themselves and their eligible dependents to free health insurance and dental coverage just months before leaving office.

Warren City Council President Cecil St. Pierre, Jr., left, and Secretary Robert Boccomino were on the council when it passed the controversial health benefits in September.

"We have many questions," said Patrick Green, who was elected to the City Council on Nov. 5, in a statement responding to the Macomb Daily article. "... The article told us the what and where, but there are many questions surrounding how this was done and why this was done."

Council members who voted for the measure were Cecil St. Pierre, Kelly Colegio, Robert Boccomino, Keith Sadowski, Scott Stevens, Steven Warner and Ronald Papandrea.

The City Council went through a major overhaul with mostly new members being elected Nov. 5. Only Papandrea was reelected to his seat.

Stevens said Monday that he and his colleagues were preparing to vote on renewing health and dental coverage for city employees on Sept. 10 when then-secretary Boccomino introduced an amendment to the measure that secured the lifetime benefits shortly before the meeting started.

"It was one page, but the print was very small. ... I remember it being very hard to read, and it was lengthy," Stevens said. "I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. ... My mistake. I should’ve objected to it being implemented or given out at the table, but (other council members) had done that so often over the last eight years, where everything was last minute."

Another council member who voted for the measure said it was a bad decision.

"I didn’t really think about it," said Papandrea. "I made a bad decision. I should have realized this could have ramifications. ... We’re all human. We all make mistakes, sometimes with good intentions. I'm sorry I voted for this." 

According to video footage of the September meeting posted on the city's website, only the brief description of the resolution listed on the agenda was read before council members approved it without discussion. 

Green said the current seven-member board "will not allow the mayor's office to remain complicit and take no action because they claim they were not aware and were asleep at the switch."

And the council president said the panel will bring the matter to the table at the next regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 26 and demand the mayor's office "take steps to unwind this action."

"We did not create this mess, but we will absolutely see it resolved," Green said.

Green's statement and the Macomb Daily article prompted Fouts to defend himself and his administration Monday afternoon. Fouts was reelected Nov. 5 to his fourth term as mayor.

"I’m outraged and angry about this unbelievable action by the City Council to vote unanimously for a golden parachute benefit package without proper notification to the mayor, city attorney, human resources director or any person of responsibility in City Hall," Fouts said in a statement.

"This was purposely not communicated with my administration and myself personally until after the 72-hour period for the mayor’s veto. I was blindsided by this last-minute effort at subverting my power to veto."

He said when he was informed weeks after the council approved the action weeks after that his office launched an investigation. He also said he made the decision the health care benefit would not be implemented by his administration. 

According to the Sept. 10 agenda, there was an item that simply read: "CONSIDERATION AND ADOPTION OF A RESOLUTION approving the continuation of Health Insurance coverages with Blue Cross, Blue Care Network and Blue Cross Medicare Advantage; And Dental Insurance coverage with Delta Dental and Golden Dental."

According to the Macomb Daily, the newspaper obtained a second resolution "that refers to a 1999 council resolution that addressed pay increases, fringe benefit improvements and other benefits had been granted to a group of employees represented by UAW Local 412 Unit 35, excluding the city’s many boards and commissions, and structured on the basis of 25 years of service."

The newspaper reported that the council provided no cost estimates or how the benefits would be funded.

Stevens, who does not use the city's health care benefits, said he was preoccupied with other resolutions up for a vote the night of the vote in September and since he believed the added measure related to the medical/dental package the council renews for Warren workers every year, "I didn't really give it a lot of thought."

Papandrea said he believed what Boccomino proposed extended benefits for outgoing council members who needed it, but he wasn't clear on a deadline or other details.

In an email to The Detroit News on Monday, former council president St. Pierre said: "I am covered under another system and completely devoid of any coverage under the resolution. The resolution was not applicable to me. I was vested 16 years ago as to my service on City Council for 24 years. I see no reason to comment any further because the resolution did not pertain to me."

The other former council members who voted for the measure, Boccomino, Sadowski, Warner and Colegio, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Fouts said Monday his office will find out who authored the "illegal" resolution and deal with the person severely.

In addition, he said, he will formally request future city council correspondence of this nature be hand-delivered to his office and require a time stamp by his staff.

Stevens said he understood the controversy about the vote and didn't object to the city undoing the decision. "They can take (the benefits) away," he told The Detroit News.

The vote by the council came a few months after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that four of the council members at the time exceeded the city's term limits and couldn't appear on the August primary ballot. Stevens, Warner, Boccomino and St. Pierre were removed from the ballot as a result. 

A judge in May ruled on a complaint that Warren council candidate Connor Berdy had filed against Warren’s City Clerk Sonya Buffa, the Warren City Election Commission and County Clerk Fred Miller, arguing that incumbents who exceeded 12 years of service in city office should not be permitted to run for another term.