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Sounding Board: Excessive Benefits

Daily Transcript Question: Current pension benefits for city employees are widely viewed as being excessive when compared to pensions offered in the private sector. Do you agree that the city's pension benefits are excessive and, if so, what would you recommend city leaders do to avoid the granting of excessive pension benefits in the future?

City leaders need to be fiscally responsible when administering the city's money. The excessive pension benefits has a multiplying effort that has put the city in precarious position both fiscally and legally. There must be checks and balances to protect the city from giveaways to insure this doesn't happen again.

-- Mike Hansen

San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce

Some claim San Diego's employees receive excessive pension benefits compared to the private sector. This is a charge that feels good but lacks substance. Instead, we should ask whether San Diego's workers are able to retire with dignity.

The city's pension fund is in serious trouble. But, there are measures short of threatening bankruptcy, switching to 401 (k)-style plans and rolling back benefits that can be taken to restore the solvency of the fund.

Contracts required city workers to pay their share into the pension fund. In return, we were guaranteed retirement benefits. Workers have faithfully honored our part of the bargain.

The recent contract for the city's blue collar workers represented by AFSMCE Local 127 called for a wage-cut with the savings earmarked to restoring the fund's solvency. Union workers are not part of the problem, but part of the solution.

Unfortunately, a misconception persists that city employees earn "Cadillac" benefits. This may be true for a few top city officials, but our blue-collar workers earn a modest retirement and average or below-average salaries.

After 30 years of service to the city of San Diego, the average pension benefit for workers retiring at the age of 62 is $2,773/month. Our average pay is $20.13/hour. More like "Ford Escort" benefits in a city with excessive housing, gasoline and living costs.

Pension funds offer taxpayers the best bargain. Pension plan investments outperform 401(k) style plans by 50 percent. Since taxpayer dollars are contributed to either plan, our tax dollars go further when we let professional investors use the clout and resources of a pension fund to maximize earnings and minimize expenses.

A secure pension is the difference between retirees being able to contribute to San Diego's economy or relying on welfare to make ends meet.

We look forward to working with the new mayor, city council and pension board to protect the retirement security of workers and the interests of taxpayers.

-- Joan Raymond

President, Local 127, AFSCME AFL-CIO

I believe the city pension system far exceeds those presented to employees in major corporations let along mid-size companies. Legal action needs to be taken against those members of the pension board who created this system. Until all the legal aspects of the illegal pensions system can be corrected the current pension plan should not be available to the new hires until the charter can be changed to authorize a new pension system.

Further new hires and existing employees should no longer be able to pre-purchase years of retirement. A defined benefit program with employee contributions needs to be put into place.

-- Gary L. Powers

President/CEO, San Diego North Chamber of Commerce

Daily Transcript Question: What do you believe is the legally correct and proper role for a city attorney in the affairs of a city?

As an attorney who has served as general counsel to a variety of local public agencies throughout California for more than 20 years, I believe the first responsibility of a public lawyer is to help the legislative body implement its policies and priorities.

A public lawyer doesn't set policy, but only helps the elected officials understand their legal options as they decide on what policies to adopt. An attorney who calls his own press conferences or holds his own public forums to promote his policy solutions oversteps his proper role by directly participating in the legislative process. It is the City Council, which is the legislative body in San Diego.

Secondly, public lawyers must help the agency comply with all of the complicated state and federal laws that apply to it. That is a huge job, in and of itself, since it means constantly educating and advising the agency and all of its employees on how to comply with often unclear legal rules. It also sometimes means telling it like it is, regardless of the politics of the moment or the political consequences. If city officials cannot trust their attorney to keep their confidences, the city attorney cannot expect to learn everything he needs to know to ensure the city is complying with the law. Bringing suits against city officials and (allegedly) threatening to reveal confidential information without a client's consent betrays such trust and undermines a public attorney's ability to ensure compliance with the laws. When wrongdoing is discovered, the city attorney cannot promote it, but neither can he prosecute it without long-term harm to his role as advisor. Perhaps the city, like the federal government, needs a law authorizing a special prosecutor to address misconduct within the city itself.

Third, within the budgetary priorities set by the elected officials, the public lawyer enforces the agency's ordinances and policies. We elect our district attorneys so that they can pursue their single role as an enforcer of our criminal laws without consideration of the political consequences, and in accordance with their own priorities, rather than the priorities of, say, the county board of supervisors who approve the district attorney's budget. But city attorneys do not have a similar mandate to serve as a prosecutor at-large. Instead, they have a limited role of prosecuting municipal crimes. In the civil arena, the people expect their legislators -- the city council -- to set priorities, not the city attorney.

Finally, as part of the public agency's management team, a public lawyer should strive to help the elected officials build consensus, respond constructively to the needs and desires of the public as expressed to the elected officials at public meetings and suggest legal solutions that assist the leadership of the agency to reach its goals. A city attorney who cannot operate as a collegial member of the city's management team is not providing the legal leadership the city and its citizens deserve.

-- Gregory V. Moser

Office managing partner of Foley & Lardner's San Diego and Sacramento offices

Complete Coverage: Sounding Board

Have Your Voice Heard!

The Daily Transcript introduces Sounding Board, a regular opinion page feature focusing on current issues. Send your responses to soundingboard@sddt.com.

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