Most residents probably don’t think too much about the Board of Supervisors, but there is one question that all voters should ponder before Election Day: “Which candidate has the stomach to stand up to the county’s politically powerful public employee unions?” If a supervisor can’t say “no” to these groups, then the county’s finances and public services will suffer, especially now, when the economy is lean, and pension debts are growing.
The two most disastrous votes by local governments during my 11 years covering Orange County politics for the Register’s Editorial Pages came in 2001 and 2004, when the Board of Supervisors approved two retroactive pension increases – first for deputy sheriffs, then for the bulk of county workers. Both votes created enormous financial problems for the county and exacerbated the unfairness of the current system, whereby government employees retire in their early 50s with 80 percent or more of their final year’s pay, guaranteed forever, and the rest of us get to work until we save up the $2 million or more (dream on!) needed to assure a similar retirement.
Both those votes came from boards comprised entirely of Republicans, most of whom touted themselves as conservatives. The ’01 vote was unanimous, and ’04 was 3-2, but both votes inflicted untold damage and are the source of continuing conflict.
The current board is pursuing a lawsuit that would roll back the retroactive portion of the ’01 increase, which it views as an unconstitutional gift of public funds. It would have been so much better to have had supervisors who looked after taxpayers’ interest rather than deputies union’s interest, which reminds us of the importance of filling the seat with the right person this go-round.
Six candidates are running to replace Norby, but three have the best chances of winning: Anaheim Council members Lorri Galloway and Harry Sidhu, both of whom recently moved from Anaheim Hills to central Anaheim so they could run for supervisor; the other high-visibility candidate is Fullerton Councilman Shawn Nelson.
Those who believe that public employee unions should have more power over the public purse have a perfect candidate in Democrat Galloway. She is a full-on union candidate who routinely shows up at union pickets and protests – most notably during the overdramatic protests by a controversial union representing some Disney workers. There’s nothing hidden here. Either you like to scream “!Si se puede!” in your spare time or you understand how dangerous this perspective would be on the board.
For those whose views are more consistent with this Republican-leaning district, there are two real choices – Sidhu or Nelson. I’ve known both of them for several years and like them both. Both tout their conservatism. But it’s increasingly clear, despite their similar stated positions on some of the union-related issues, that Sidhu is a go-along candidate more interested in attaining a high position than in ideology and that Nelson is the line-in-the-sand guy who won’t take any union nonsense. That doesn’t always make him the most pleasant person to be around, and, despite his being named Republican Elected Official of the Year for his stance against pension spiking in Fullerton, he has at times been at odds with other Republicans because of his unwavering positions. Indeed, during the Fullerton action he went up against two fellow Republicans and a Republican state senator who were angry that he was rocking the boat over the pension matter.
I was in the thick of that battle. Nelson called me, a Register editorial writer at the time, and told me that the Fullerton Council was reviewing a pension increase in closed session. He revealed no details to me, yet council members (Democrats and Republicans) attacked him viciously and accused him of violating the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law.
Actually, Nelson was acting in the true letter and spirit of the law. The Brown Act requires cities to provide clear information to the public about their dealings, and to properly describe closed-session topics. Instead, the staff and other council members were all in on the proposed pension-spiking deal, so they did what they could to conceal even the general description of what they were discussing as an obvious way to blunt any criticism. Meanwhile, the unions already knew the full details of the contract, which they had voted for. The fix was in, and Nelson took much heat to shine the light on an unaffordable abuse of the city budget.
There’s a reason the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the most muscular and least-reasonable union in the county, is pumping out independent mailers touting the Sidhu candidacy. The union cares about one thing more than any other – protecting the retroactive portion of the pension increase its members were granted in 2001. They desperately need one more vote to end the board’s lawsuit, which could have statewide pro-taxpayer reverberations. Although Nelson said in January that he didn’t agree entirely with the approach of the lawsuit, he is supportive of continuing the appeal. Sidhu wants to drop the lawsuit. That in itself makes the union’s spending on his behalf understandable.
“This is the showdown we needed and that I had in mind when I gave my speech,” OC Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh told me. “Voters will be given clear choices between those who want to reform a severely broken system and the union candidate who wants to perpetuate the status quo.” Baugh is referring to his speech last year calling on Republican candidates – even in officially nonpartisan races, such as supervisor – to eschew union money. His quotation above refers most directly to the Nelson vs. Galloway choice, but it’s clear that Baugh views a victory by Nelson, not Sidhu, as something that would “give every other elected official the courage to take on the unions.”
Sidhu and Nelson signed Baugh’s “no money from unions” pledge, but Sidhu met with the union to seek its endorsement; Nelson refused to even attend what he views as a compromising event.
At the OC GOP debate, Sidhu defended the concept of public employee unions – a dubious proposition (implemented in the 1970s by Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s running again this year) given that government employees already have civil service protections. Sidhu even defended the current defined-benefit pension plans. He said such decisions over pensions should be left to elected officials. Unfortunately, leaving matters to elected officials, who are dependent on union support to win elections, is the root of the current problem. The OC GOP voted overwhelmingly to back Nelson after the debate.
There are other issues in the race, but many of us believe the union issue is paramount. At least voters have clear choices on that score.
Steven Greenhut was an editorial writer for the Register for 11 years.