Pension reform injects life into dull election season 

If pension reform were running for mayor this year, it would be the only candidate in a crowded field that could gain more than 50 percent of the vote.

That’s why all eyes will be focused on it next week when the Board of Supervisors receives a long-awaited version of a negotiated retirement plan for The City’s public employees.

And when it’s served up Tuesday, the politics around pension reform will slide front and center, instead of merely serving as a backdrop for the November election.

The charge for pension reform has been led by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who joined forces with Mayor Ed Lee several months ago to form a group involving labor union representatives to come up with a compromise measure aimed at curbing skyrocketing pension costs that threaten to render San Francisco insolvent.

The final numbers contained in that plan will determine how many pension reform measures will be on the November ballot. Public Defender Jeff Adachi has already produced a pension reform proposal that would raise the retirement age of employees hired after Jan. 1, 2012, cap their retirement income at $140,000 per year and eliminate the supplemental cost-of-living increase that this year cost The City $170 million.

Adachi, who is gathering signatures for his ballot measure, said he would drop the initiative if the competing plan “can deliver real reform and ensures that we don’t have to come back and fix it again in a few years.”

Yet given that labor’s vested interests might not allow it to be far-reaching enough for that to happen, we can expect two competing measures on the ballot, both of which could conceivably pass.

That should make for some interesting theatrics at the board, where we will find out which members count  themselves among labor’s best buddies, and how those running for mayor are going use their stances on pension reform to bolster their own campaigns.

All the jockeying has already produced some interesting dynamics and several perceived conflicts, especially now that everyone agrees pension reform is the only hot-button issue in this election.

Adachi’s proposal, which has been called “aggressive” (he prefers “efficient”), has come under attack because it did not involve input from labor and has been criticized by some mayoral candidates who, shockingly enough, are currying support from the unions.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office must vet the proposals and write the summaries and questions for the ballot, recently termed Adachi’s plan a “gimmick.” At a Labor Council forum this week, he made more disparaging remarks about Adachi’s plan and praised union leaders for their efforts.

The fact Herrera was involved in some of the early discussions in the group involving Elsbernd, Lee and labor leaders — wearing the hat of city attorney — has Adachi wondering whether Herrera has an inherent conflict of interest, something I questioned when he threw his hat in the mayor race.

Herrera said he has no conflict, and he and his deputies sit in the meetings as legal advisers, not policymakers. And he pointed me to his original document on handling potential conflicts of interest as city attorney, which he put out when he announced his candidacy.

He also was quick to say board President David Chiu, also a mayoral candidate, sat in on some of those meetings — just so we know that any perceived conflicts might apply to others.

Chiu, however, doesn’t have similar constraints. As city attorney, Herrera can’t endorse local candidates or ballot measures. Yet when he dons his mayor’s outfit, he can. When his political consultant recently got into trouble for questionable lobbying activities, Herrera immediately sent the matter to the Oakland City Attorney’s Office. But he’s not farming out his oversight of pension measures on the ballot.

It’s hard to tell where the firewalls are in politics when they’re invisible, or at least moveable.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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