The Loathsome Campaign Against Pension Reform

An offer he can't refuse?
When Jeff Adachi enraged every last vestigial limb of the San Francisco political body by pushing his "Smart Reform" pension measure onto the ballot, your humble narrator made a prediction. Labor, acting through beholden politicians and complicit partners in the media, would place a horse's head in the public defender's bed.

Turns out I was wrong. That'd be far too subtle.

In the past month, Adachi has faced the following slings and arrows:

  • Mayor Gavin Newsom's office agreed to a poison pill in union negotiations with the police and firefighters: If Adachi's measure becomes law, some $20 million in wage givebacks are suddenly nullified. (Incidentally, these so-called givebacks actually cost the city more down the road because they're just deferred wage increases. It's almost as if Newsom doesn't expect to be here in the coming years and these will be the headaches of another mayor...);

  • And, finally, city unions have claimed that the fact an accountant named Craig Weber served as the treasurer for "Smart Reform" and also served on the San Francisco civil grand jury that released a blistering report on the state of the city's pension system has "undermined" the credibility of the jury and hamstrung Adachi's movement. Let's focus on this latest -- and perhaps most disingenuous -- attack.

Well, it's broken. Who will step up and fix it?
Weber himself months ago asked City Attorney Dennis Herrera if his dual role was problematic. He was told it was not. Judge James McBride later opined similarly.

But even if he was a devious double-agent, to believe Weber was able to doctor the grand jury report at the behest of some anti-labor cabal, you'd have to first bestow upon him the ability to single-handedly dictate the conclusions of a months-long analysis prepared with 18 other jurors. But wait -- not only would Weber have had to use Jedi mind tricks to monopolize the content of the report released last month, he'd have also had to do the same thing for an equally blistering pension report released last year (authored by a largely different set of 19 jurors).

"It's silly and absurd and shows that no one reads the grand jury reports," says four-time grand jury member Bob Planthold of allegations that Weber somehow twisted 18 cohorts around his little finger. "To say that is culpably negligent. If they want to criticize the grand jury, they ought to understand it."

Incidentally, you can read both reports right here -- this year's and last year's. They're no harder to digest than a Russian novel -- and every bit as depressing.  

The scant honest or intelligent debate about Adachi's measure is no less discouraging for its predictability. One prime talking point hailing from the progressives is that Wall Street barons wrecked our economy and now public sector workers are shouldering the blame. There is some truth to this; Walt the janitor did not blow your 401K. But this Utopian line of argumentation conveniently ignores the very real pension-driven fiscal crises affecting every state in the union. It also ignores the fact that those robber barons' financial shenanigans helped create the illusory boom markets that enabled public sector employees to negotiate such sweet pension deals. In the end, blaming Wall Street is merely a strategy meant to appeal to fair- and liberal-minded San Franciscans and excuse the course of action San Francisco does best: Do nothing. Blame no one.

Intelligent, civil debate is sorely missed, because Adachi's measure, by the way, is far from perfect. It is undeniable that asking a 9 or 10-percent pension contribution will affect the life of a typist earning $60,000 far more than a cop earning twice that or, say, a public defender banking $200 grand.* But the reason even pension-minded politicians don't want to be publicly associated with Adachi's measure has more to do with health care: Smart Reform would double city workers' payments for dependents' care to 50 percent. You just can't argue that this won't have a greater affect on lower-paid workers with larger families (and less on wealthier ones who are child-free).

These are not illegitimate gripes. But labor groups will have to deal with Adachi's harsh and imperfect proposition because they never came close to offering a solution of their own that would even begin to address the gathering pension crisis. This is what comes of leaving your problems to be solved by others. And this is a collective failure on the part of the city's powerful unions and both the progressive and moderate politicians who have aggressively fought any notion of pension reform, even as the metaphorical barbarians stream through cracks in the gates.

Gate's open; they're here...
City voters should not buy into the loathsome tactics highlighted above -- nor should they reflexively gratify a simplistic urge to smack public sector workers in the mouth. Read the measure. Ask questions. Make up your minds. Vote accordingly.

In times like these, one can always do worse than to follow the advice of one Chuck D. -- "Don't believe the hype."

*While most public defenders don't earn anywhere near $200,000, elected PD Adachi does take home just shy of that.

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