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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dear City Council: Fix It

Like many cities across the country, and particularly in the State of California, the City of Long Beach management and elected officials have recently worked through the budget for the coming year to cover a multi-million dollar gap between revenue and expenses. Putting a lot of faith in future negotiations with the various labor groups that represent most city workers, approximately $20 million was cut from projected expenses to balance the budget. Now if they can just figure out how to reduce another $20 million for the 2010-2011 budget and yet another $20 million for the 2012-2013 budget.

One assumes that we can continue these budget deficit projections ad infinitum given that one of the major expenditures has not been addressed: pension and benefit reform for City employees. With each budget and each contract negotiation this issue has been passed over and left for some other City Council. It appears the time is right for this City Council to address this issue, if only those sitting in the seats have the political courage to stand strong and address the issue.

Restructuring public employee pensions and benefits requires stamina, patience and commitment to an outcome. Politically the public employee unions are highly sought allies when candidates are running races because of their ability to pour resources, not just cash but bodies to man phone banks and knock on doors, into those whom they support. In Long Beach a tremendous number of city employees live in the City and are voters adding a bonus for candidates not just of financial support but of actual votes. It is rather incestuous the relationship between our local elected officials and those who work for them once elected, and without entering that relationship getting elected in Long Beach is extremely difficult.

Then there is the next level of politics: State office. In Long Beach to get elected to the California Assembly or Senate two things must happen: 1) you must receive support from the unions, public and private so you can 2) win the Democratic primary. If you achieve (1) you will achieve (2) and you will then win the general election. Happens every time as our city is appropriately gerrymandered and loyal to the Democratic Party to ignore any part of the general election with the exception of the (D) after a candidate's name.

To quickly recap: successful candidacies in Long Beach politics are heavily dependent on endorsements and support from unions.

Union leaders are not running out of their offices to meet officials for the purpose of restructuring the pensions and benefits of their members--after all they are elected as well. In fact getting them to sit down for the specific purpose of such a restructuring negotiation is extremely difficult. But that is exactly what needs to occur in Long Beach (or fill in the blank with your California city, county or just say California).

Politically Long Beach appears to have an excellent window of opportunity for significant restructuring of pensions and benefits to occur in all the city contracts. Looking at the upcoming elections, who is being termed out and prospects for future office, the timing is now for members of City Council to address this issue without a majority of the council having to fear political retribution from the unions hampering their political careers. Let's take a look at the Mayor and nine City Council Districts:

Mayor Bob Foster has already begun his fund raising for a re-election campaign, while anything can happen and he, like all mayors and politicians, has his detractors, any candidate will have an extremely hard time unseating him. During an interview session I was part of for the Long Beach Post last year, Mayor Foster indicated he wanted to tier the pension system for new employees and have them contribute more to their pensions and benefits. He is on board to take on the unions over this issue--so he said and I will take him on his word.

1st District Robert Garcia has a very bright and long political future ahead of him. His campaign to win the special election for his seat was almost flawless and he won handily. He is up for re-election in 2010 and it is difficult to see how any candidate will defeat him. Garcia's challenge is going to be what route does he want his political career to take? Stay in Long Beach and run for Mayor when Foster is term limited out? Go after a statewide office? Take on Laura Richardson for Congress? My outlook is he takes the City Council to Mayor race, using his next term on council to continue to build his support and influence through the city. Where does this put him on restructuring pensions and benefits? Garcia has as much influence or power in his short term in office as anyone on the Council, he can very well afford to spend some political capital and pursue aggressive reform. His district has some of the greatest needs for programs and assistance from the city for his constituents, freeing up funds from future budgets that would be going to such programs is in his and their best interest. I put Garcia in the "yes" column for reform.

2nd District Suja Lowenthal is at a bit of a crossroads and whatever her future political plans may be I have not heard. Will she run against her ex-mother in-law for Assembly? Will she run for her ex-father in-law's seat if he is elected Lieutenant Governor? Or will she serve out her term limits and return to private life working at Cal State Long Beach. It is doubtful she can take on and beat Bonnie Lowenthal who has years of relationships with the organizations and groups needed to win. Also in doubt is her ability to capture Alan Lowenthal's supporters, who would be needed to win any primary for State Senate. Her divorce from Judge Dan Lowenthal has created a rift between her and the tight Lowenthal clan, which frees Suja Lowenthal to aggressively pursue contract reforms with public employees. Will she? Like Garcia, her district is in as much or more need of the funding that would be freed up with such reform, I am uncertain however if she would be willing to enter the fray. I put Lowenthal on the fence.

3rd District Gary DeLong publicly stood up to the Long Beach Police Officers Association during last week's City Council meeting casting the lone vote against a contract revision with the LBPD officers. His reason was that pension and benefit reforms were not addressed, because of this he did not support the contract since in his opinion the negotiations did not go far enough. Facing re-election in 2010 and then being termed out, and it being doubtful he will seek another office, DeLong is on record to fight for aggressive reform of employees' benefits and pensions.

4th District Patrick O'Donnell is a member of a union, his brother who passed away several years ago was a member of the LBPOA, his orientation is pro-worker. This would lead one to conclude he would be against any restructuring of the contracts and putting more of the pension and benefit costs on the employees. Politically however O'Donnell has not much to lose by working on such reform. He is termed out after this cycle, unless he runs a write in campaign he will not be needing political support from the unions. While there were rumors before he may run for statewide office, looking at the seats available and when they become available the timing may not be right for O'Donnell. While he can see the benefits of reform, his DNA may be such that any support might be luke-warm and pursuit of aggressive reform may be out of the question. I put O'Donnell on the fence waiting to see what comes to council before strongly committing, if he ever strongly commits, to any reform plans.

5th District Gerrie Schipske is a liberal up for re-election in a pretty conservative district. She has strong ties to labor, see her employment by the teacher's union as one example, and has fought Mayor Foster on many issues. Schipske has had very good political instincts in picking her battles and issues that play well at home on the Eastside for her constituents and is not afraid to be confrontational downtown. Like O'Donnell her DNA puts her at odds of asking the workers to give up anything in a contract, much less dip into their own pockets to pay for pensions and benefits. However, she is up for re-election in a district where such reform would be popular. Put her on the fence as she sees which way the winds are blowing. Her future political career versus short term re-election.

6th District Dee Andrews has twice defeated a strong labor candidate to win elections to City Council. As with Garcia in the 1st and Lowenthal in the 2nd, Andrews' 6th District has significant needs of any city programs to assist its residents. With no re-election in 2012 Andrews is in a great position to take a lead on pension reforms and show his residents and the rest of the city that the priorities for the council should be citizens first and employees second. Will Andrews pick up the staff and lead on this? He can but we will see. I will rate Andrews as favorable to reform.

7th District Tonya Reyes Uranga is termed out in 2010, which would put her in a position to support strong reform efforts as he political future is blocked by incumbents and term limit math. However Uranga's husband is running for her seat against some very good competition in the 2010 election. Politically Uranga's move is to fight any pension or benefit reform to curry the good graces of the unions for her husband. This move goes entirely with her political career and ideology so count on stiff resistance from lame duck Uranga for any reforms.

8th District Rae Gabelich was re-elected in 2008 with no opposition on the ballot. She is out of office on term limits in 2012 and unless she mounts a write-in campaign her political career ends there, with the possible exception of education boards. When she was elected in 2004 she beat incumbent Rob Webb with the support of the police and fire unions, but has the payback ended? Gabelich is not a standout on the council, with the exception of any airport issue she is rarely heard from and is not one to make any radical proposals. Her position on the issue is hard to gauge and while she has no negatives to push for aggressive reforms other than perhaps her personal ideology, it is difficult to see her taking a strong position on the issue. Put her on the fence depending on what any reform package looks like.

9th District Val Lerch is out of office on term limits in 2010 and running a campaign for write in votes. His competition is Dan Pressburg and Brad Shore. Shore has been very active in his campaign and has picked up some important endorsements. Does Lerch need the city unions in order to be successful in his write in bid? Does it matter? If the unions come out early and endorse Shore then we can expect Lerch to be more aggressive in pursuit of pension reforms. Lerch may aggressively pursue this path without regard to such endorsements as he does have a strong grasp of the long term impact of the current pension and benefit packages on our city and future budgets. Should his opponent(s) publicly oppose any reform Lerch can paint them as in the pocket of the unions and working not for the benefit of the constituents but of the unions. I put Lerch down for pressing for reforms.

So that is my read on the current council and mayor. The votes and political power are there to stare down the unions and use the advantage of another deficit budget that could force layoffs next year, and the year after, and the year negotiate considerable reforms in the city contributions to employee pension and benefit packages. A majority of votes are available where the individuals will experience very little long term fall out to impact their future political careers making this the perfect time for any significant restructuring of the contracts with the city unions. While it will not be easy and there will be plenty of nasty things said about members of council and staff, in the long run doing what is right rarely is easy. And the right thing to do for the future of our city is to re-negotiate the contracts the city pays all of its workers to reduce city contributions and increase employee contributions to pensions and benefits.

The timing is right but do our politicians have the strength and courage to do what is best for our future?

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