The Houston City Council will review a decision that put Houston’s mayor on the city’s health insurance rolls without reimbursing taxpayers. The discovery was uncovered last week.

The conclusion came after a study of insurance expenses conducted by Alderwoman Angie Gettys who asked for the information from the office of the city clerk, Heather Sponsler. The documentation shows Mayor Willy Walker’s monthly insurance premiums total $450 monthly or $5,400 annually. Walker told the six-member council he had completed his officeholder paperwork after his election and turned it into the city clerk when taking office in April 2019 and has never reimbursed the city.

Mayor Willie Walker

“Where does it say I have to pay for it?” Walker asked. “I just came in here and got insurance that I assumed as before.”

Walker said he completed the paperwork as any city employee would.

The city covers employees and their dependents, if they choose. A review by Gettys showed over the last few decades the city has allowed two elected officials — then Alderman Don Kruse and a fire chief, Don Rust — to obtain health insurance, but they reimbursed taxpayers for the cost because they were not considered employees. It allowed them to obtain health insurance as part of the discounted group policy and in turn repay the city for the benefit. The council and mayor are elected officials. The city administrator and city clerk are appointees to their city jobs.

Members of the council and mayor receive a small monthly salary. The mayor’s salary is $600 monthly. The council’s pay is $160 monthly.

Angie Gettys

Gettys asked who had authorized putting the mayor on a free health insurance plan. “I’m unaware of a policy that required him to compensate the city and I was also unaware that we didn’t reach out to all the elected officials,” City Administrator Scott Avery told the council. “I don’t get involved. I fill out my paperwork just like everyone else. If you want to me more involved in that, I’ll be more than happy to do that. But there’s a division of work here that we try to do.”

Avery added, “We don’t require you (the council) to reimburse the retirement. We pay that for you.”

The council’s review also is expected to include a study of its participation in the state retirement system, known as the Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System and whether some type of reimbursement is appropriate from the council.

The health insurance question first came up at a previous meeting. There was disagreement Monday between Gettys and Sponsler over the questioning then. Gettys said she asked if elected officials received health insurance; Sponsler said she thought the question pertained to the city council only. Gettys said the recently released documents show the mayor is receiving the benefit and she was troubled that no one offered that information during the earlier discussion.

City attorney Brad Eidson, asked for his legal input and suggested it be received in a closed session. Avery said he would work on a policy related to retirement and health insurance for elected officials in consultation with Eidson.

PARK BOARD ISSUES

A 27-year veteran of the Houston Parks Board and current councilwoman called Monday for the city to meet with its park board and a council-composed parks committee to immediately improve communications and end ongoing problems between the city and the group that oversees parks and recreation efforts locally. Shoppers in Houston pay a one-cent sales tax for fire, police and parks improvements. Half goes to parks.

City of Houston employees install a polypropylene surface on the city’s half-court basketball facility between Walnut Street and Main Street. The work is among projects approved by the park board. HOUSTON HERALD FILE PHOTO

Sheila Walker, whose service to the community extends to the parks board and two different spans on the city council, said it was time to improve relationships.

Park board members say communication between them and the city has crumbled, and came to a head when it recently hired a parks director and the selection wasn’t employed by the city. City hall has since reopened the hiring process. Mayor Walker and City Administrator Scott Avery said state law was not followed for posting the meeting and conducting the interview for a new parks director. The parks board said the agenda was typed by a city employee, on its behalf, and sent to Avery. Since the last council meeting, Avery has questioned whether the parks board is perhaps violating the state’s Sunshine Law with communication between itself and not conducting its business publicly. He said he had contacted a member of the Missouri Municipal League and learned that Sunshine Law training is available online for them.

Audio of Monday night’s city council meeting. Parks discussion begins at 1:15. Health insurance discussion begins at 35:00

In all, the council spent nearly 30 minutes — about half the meeting — discussing the breakdown between the city and park board. Member Jennifer Shelton appearing for the second consecutive meeting and pleaded for clarity on the park board’s role in city government and bristled at the premise that the board is doing anything illegal and said the volunteer board is doing nothing but trying to move the parks department forward.

“I just want us all to get on the same page,” Alderman Kevin Stilley said.

“Absolutely,” Avery said.

Stilley said the council learned of the last director hire — who left after three days — when he attended an introductory council meeting.

Problems first surfaced last summer.

Who are members of the city council?

Who are members of the Houston City Council? Two representatives are from each of the city’s three wards. They are: Angie Gettys and Ross Richardson, Ward III; Michael Weakly and Sheila Walker, Ward II; and Kevin Stilley and Sam Kelley, Ward I.

In other matters, members:

•Approved an earlier discussed waste hauler contract with WCA.

•Authorized reengaging KPM, a Springfield accounting firm, to provide routine audit services.

•Heard that renewed conversations about the lease of a new electrical bucket truck might allow for its purchase. The city is awaiting paperwork from the firm manufacturing it. Earlier, the council put it on hold due to an estimated big jump in costs.

•Will purchase a three-year $100,000 CD from Security Bank of the Ozarks in Houston. The program allows for a staggering of expiration terms and allows the city to readily have funds, should it need it.

•Heard Avery give an update on projects ranging from splicing fiber for the city’s internet system to using a vacuum to pick up leaves. Councilwomen Walker and Gettys also asked that any job opening be published in the local newspaper. They said it was only being sent to a social media network and the city’s website.

•Adjourned into a closed session after the open meeting. No votes or motions were entertained.

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