Whitefish Council Wants Voters to Decide if Council Should be Compensated

If voters approve amending the city charter, the council would then hold a public hearing before voting on a resolution to establish what compensation they would receive

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish City Hall. Beacon file photo

The Whitefish City Council at its meeting last week approved submitting a ballot question to voters in November asking if they support amending the city charter to remove a provision prohibiting city council members from receiving salaries.

If Whitefish voters were to approve amending the city charter, which was adopted in 1980, the council would then hold a public hearing before voting on a resolution to establish what they would receive, which could include some form of salary. City health insurance benefits with premiums paid by the city, stipends, mileage and per diems are all possible depending on what the council decides. Approval of the ballot question would make the council eligible for compensation starting Jan. 1, 2025.

All members of the council voted in favor of the ballot question, with the exception of Councilor Andy Feury, who was absent from the meeting.

Councilor Ben Davis emphasized during the council’s discussion ahead of the vote that the council is not necessarily asking for all of those forms of compensation, and that if they were to agree on a new compensation package for the council it could change at some point in the future. He also said he’s glad they’re sending the question to voters, given that some benefits, like health insurance, could be granted to the council through an administrative process.

“It’s the right way to do it, and they’re going to tell us what they think about it,” Davis said of voters. He also said he believes that as the work of the council gets more difficult and time consuming, it’s important for there to be good elected officials, and that it could be a benefit to take even a modest step in making it easier for people to serve on the council.

When the council first discussed the issue earlier this year, most members expressed a belief that providing the council with some combination of eligibility for health insurance coverage through the city with the city paying the premium, or a salary, could ease some of the financial barriers that might be preventing younger or working-class community members from seeking election to the council.

Whitefish is one of a limited number of local governments in the state that does not offer compensation to its council. During a work session in February, the council was presented with a 2022 wages survey from the Montana League of Cities and Towns (MLCT), which laid out salaries for more than 60 local governments in the state, and showed Troy as the only other all-volunteer council.

Currently, members of the Whitefish City Council receive up to $500 to offset the purchase of an electronic device, $150 per quarter for use of a personal cell phone or access to a paid city cell phone, a WAVE membership, and the opportunity to opt into the city’s health insurance program by paying the full premium for whichever plan they select. Per the city charter, council members are also eligible to receive a per diem and mileage allowances for expenses incurred while performing their official duties.

At the time of the 2022 MLCT survey, Kalispell paid its mayor $9,000 annually, and the council members $5,000 annually, with free medical, dental coverage and annual stipends also included as benefits. Columbia Falls in 2022 reported paying its mayor $400 annually and its council members $200.

In the context of voters approving the amendment, Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano said that were this to reach a public hearing, he would advocate that current members of the council not be eligible for compensation, because he believes it would amount to a conflict of interest in awarding themselves a financial advantage through office.

That idea was met with pushback by Councilor Rebecca Norton, who has been vocal in her support of the council receiving compensation for their work.

“This is for the future, it’s not for us. I know you guys are sensitive for that. I recommended this 11 years ago. Now, we have a lot of need in our community to encourage participation in the public process. And this is one way we can do it,” Norton said. “People might not want to take a stipend if they’re elected, they might not need health insurance. But for people that might benefit from that, if they have leadership skills, it could make a difference in them running, or serving. I know you guys are sensitive to taking anything when we’re all volunteers but this really is about the future.”

Councilor Steve Qunell expressed similar support, and even addressed what he said was a sentiment among some members of the council, and among some members of the public, that they signed up for the job knowing they wouldn’t get paid, and so they shouldn’t.

“Well, I did run for election knowing that the charter said that I couldn’t be paid. I also stated clearly that I think it was high time we change the charter during my election campaign,” Qunell said. “The notion that this was never talked about, and that we should be doing this pro bono, I think is false. At least it’s false from my campaign perspective.”

He also shared that he believes it’s “high time we put our money where our mouth is as a community” and decide if they do want the best people on the council.

“Are we limiting some of the best people from running because they financially can’t afford it?” Qunell said.

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