(Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: How to protect individuals from financial damage caused by irresponsible elected officials

Most everyone is familiar with how insurance deductibles work: You cover the first dollars out of pocket and then, when the expenses reach the threshold under your policy, the insurance kicks in and pays the bills.

The thresholds vary by policy, the damages and the premiums, but the idea is that property, vehicle and business owners, and people needing medical care can better afford to handle several hundred or even several thousand dollars in costs, knowing their insurance will cover the really big numbers.

It makes sense, covering individuals and businesses from unaffordable repair bills, medical costs and damage claims beyond their deductibles. That’s the deal insurance companies make when they write policies, figuring they will profit by paying out less in claims than they earn on premiums and investments over the years, even if they have to pay large claims.

If the public can share the risk and protect themselves against expensive repair costs and medical bills, why can’t the public also protect themselves against paying out too much for damages caused by irresponsible elected officials? Think of the cost of poor policy decisions — particularly personnel decisions — and whether it is fair that the public always pay 100% of the bill.

That’s where a new type of deductible could help.

Think of the several million dollars the state treasury, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Municipality of Anchorage have paid out the past few years in court-ordered damages, attorney fees and negotiated settlements to fired employees, harassed employees and public employee unions that won their cases against a governor or mayor.

The money has gone to state employees who were fired for not agreeing to pledge loyalty to the governor. To Kenai Peninsula Borough employees who were harassed by the mayor — a mayor who later ran for governor, thinking maybe that skill would serve him well in higher office. And to Anchorage municipal employees dumped by a mayor who is a lousy role model for good governance.

No question that the public treasury should defend elected officials who are only doing their real job making decisions, but getting sued because someone disagrees. Clearly government needs to defend mayors, governors and legislators in cases such as disputes over permits and project approvals, the constitutionality of legislation and spending decisions.

But the cost to the public of paying damages and legal expenses of ill-mannered, ill-tempered and ill-willed personnel actions is getting out of hand — certainly out of pocket from public funds.

A possible solution would be to require elected officials to help cover such claims, but not the small amounts similar to a $500 deductible on a car accident or $1,000 deductible on medical bills. That nickel-and-dime stuff would be more an annoyance than a deterrent.

Why not an upside-down deductible for errant elected officials? The public picks up the small stuff and the elected official is on the hook for large court orders and negotiated settlements. They might not think twice, or even three times, about paying a $1,000 deductible for their next harassment or illegal firing. But knowing they could be at risk of a $100,000 court order or settlement might make them stop and consult a real lawyer instead of some political appointee.

It might lead to better decisions if they have to think of their deductible.

Sure, there are a lot of reasons why this is an unworkable, impractical plan that could be abused for political purposes. But it’s nice to dream of the public no longer paying 100% of the cost of the really lousy and illegal actions.

• Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal public policy work. He lives in Anchorage and is publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper.

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