East Ridge City Attorney Hal North has written a letter saying Vice Mayor Jim Bethune and other council members are eligible for the same health benefits as city employees.
Attorney North said, under state law, the city could pay up to 100 percent of the cost of insurance for council members.
Commissioner Larry Sewell has raised an issue about a $13,800 item in the budget this year for the insurance coverage for Vice Mayor Bethune and his wife.
Councilman Sewell said, "I don't begrudge him the insurance. I just don't think the way that they went about it was right."
He said former City Manager Tim Gobble did not take the matter to the council for a vote, though the Bethune benefit was above his $10,000 approval limit. The first-year cost of the Bethune insurance last year was $12,000.
Councilman Sewell also said the city charter says council members can receive pay and expenses, but does not say anything about benefits.
He said when former Mayor Mike Steele got city health coverage he paid all the costs for himself and his wife.
Vice Mayor Bethune said the same insurance coverage was offered last year to all the council members. He said, "I was the only one who took it. I was retiring and was looking for insurance at the time. When this came along, I said, 'Sign me up.'"
He said he does contribute to the cost of the coverage, paying the same amount as other employees do. He declined to say how much he pays every month.
Noting that he and Councilman Sewell have often been on the opposite side on votes and that now he is with the majority on many issues, Vice Mayor Bethune said, "This is about sour grapes. He is just trying to gig me."
He said East Ridge resident Brian Williams, who has written numerous emails to East Ridge city officials about the issue, is a nephew of Councilman Sewell. Councilman Sewell said Mr. Williams called him about the issue - not the other way around.
Freida Wheeler, interim city manager, told Mr. Williams in one email, "Vice-Mayor Bethune is the council member legally covered by health insurance per TCA; the same benefit provided to employees of the City of East Ridge. Vice-Mayor Bethune pays the same amount on health premium as other employees pay for the health coverage. Then City Manager Tim Gobble notified each council member of their eligibility for health insurance per TCA; Vice Mayor Bethune opted to subscribe to the benefit. Other council members were also offered the same coverage, but I understand they already had ins coverage at the time. This benefit continues to be offered to Mayor and Council at insurance enrollment.
"When each budget is approved by council, all line items included in that budget are approved at the time the budget is passed, as the 2012/2013 budget. If our proposed FY2013/2014 budget is approved on second reading, all items are approved at that time."
Ms. Wheeler added, "At this time, staff has attempted to answer your questions but you refuse to accept our answers. I now consider your relentless questions and emails as harassing behavior."
Former Mayor Steele said about 2008 or 2009 he looked into the city benefit after his wife lost her insurance benefit at her job.
He said he was told by then-City Manager William Whitson that he was eligible for the coverage, but that he would have to pay 100 percent.
Mr. Steele said, "It was good insurance, and I thought that was fair. I didn't think the taxpayers should have to pay for it."