The Odd Couple: Former Combatants Adachi, Elsbernd Bond Over Pension Reform

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Felix, Oscar; Sean, Jeff. Sean, Jeff; Felix, Oscar.
When we last covered the interaction of Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Westside Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, the latter was cutting the former off in mid-sentence -- and the former was giving the stare-of-death to the latter.

In the epic battle over the public defender's budget last year, the tone quickly came to resemble a late-night telephone conversation between Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly. Adachi complained "He has no idea what he's doing, and he's going to try and tell me how to run my office?" Elsbernd shot back, "When it comes to managing a budget, frankly, he's horrible." Happily, when you Google the phrase "Lawyer Brawl," our article about this still comes up first.

So, it came as something of a surprise to read Adachi-penned editorials in the Chronicle yesterday and Guardian today in which the public defender appears to be channeling Elsbernd with regards to reforming the city's pension and health care systems. It's no coincidence -- they've been talking about this. "Jeff gets the big picture," said Elsbernd. "I might disagree with his budget, but we agree on the overall city budget."

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Sean Elsbernd and Jeff Adachi may yet exchange Christmas cards
Elsbernd in December proposed a charter amendment that would alter the city's pension system. Earlier today, however, the supervisor left a meeting with labor leaders that went so well he downgraded his bill's chances of advancing past Rules Committee tomorrow from "50-50" to "100-to-1."

It warrants mentioning that Elsbernd's seemingly doomed measure  -- which Adachi calls "very modest" -- did not even begin to address the principal concern with the city's pension system: When the fund loses money, the city is mandated by its charter to make up the difference. By 2013, it is estimated this could be a $675 million contribution. (By the way, since altering the city's pension plan requires voter approval in San Francisco, the city's system is actually better off than those elsewhere -- which is kind of like saying you'd be better off as a passenger on the Lusitania than the Titanic).

Adachi acknowledged that Elsbernd's plan would only be a first step -- yet even that appears to be a move many in this city aren't willing to make. If Adachi continues pushing the issue, he'll run into resistance. Quickly.

"There are some people who don't want to see anything changed. But I just don't see how we can get around this problem," said the public defender. He acknowledges that burgeoning pension and health care costs will continue to bite his office's budget -- but says his focus on pension reform transcends self-interest. "I see this as a city reform. We don't have any other sources of income coming in. A tax on soda pop ain't gonna do it. There's no plan to get out of this situation we're in. You can't just cut, cut, cut."

Well, that does sound like a mayoral platform, does it not? And tangling with unions over pension reform would go over well with the city's more conservative voters out in Elsbernd-land. Adachi denied he was laying the groundwork for a mayoral run -- for now. "At this point I'm just running for public defender. I'm up again this year," he said.

Since Elsbernd's plan appears all but doomed -- and isn't as far-reaching as either the supe or public defender purport to want -- the next option may be to start gathering signatures to  place an item directly on the ballot. "We may have to go to the voters directly," affirmed Elsbernd. "If the board won't confront the problem, hopefully the people will."  Both Elsbernd and Adachi said such a movement is something they would consider geting behind.

When asked if people should take Elsbernd and Adachi's willingness to work together as a sign the city is facing a grave problem, Adachi's answer was near instantaneous: "Yes. Oh yes."

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