Executive Editor Frank Pine
Created: 01/28/2012 06:06:04 AM PST

San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors asked county lawyers last week to draft language for a ballot measure that would give voters the final say on increases to pension benefits for public employees.

Supervisors Janice Rutherford, Gary Ovitt and Josie Gonzales voted yea with supervisors Brad Mitzelfelt and Neil Derry voting nay.

Gonzales and Mitzelfelt both expressed at least a little ambivalence, saying they wanted to wait and see the final language of the ballot measure before committing.

We didn’t quote Derry in our story, but he was the first person to comment on it once it was posted on our website, and the nuance of his nay is significant.

Derry: “This wasn’t pension reform. It was a feel-good measure that would have had zero impact on current employee pensions and would create a significant roadblock to negotiating pension reductions in the future. How is it `reform’ if the pensions aren’t being changed?”

Mere hours after the board made its decision Tuesday, the head of the county’s most powerful union – the Safety Employees Benefit Association – announced it would fund an initiative to cut supervisors’ pay by reducing their employment status to part time.

Union president Laren Leichliter said the SEBA announcement was not intended to intimidate supervisors and noted that signature gatherers were collecting names the Thursday before the pension item was placed on the supervisors’ agenda.

His quote: “All our elected officials, according to them they’re all overpaid, so we’re just trying to assist them in their progression of trying to save county residents money,” Leichliter said.

Maybe that’s the case, but the timing is pretty suspect and it’s hard to see this as anything other than the latest example of the rough-and-tumble politics of San Bernardino County in particular and California in general.

The real issue here, however, appears to be the county’s ongoing contract negotiations with SEBA. As the county struggles to close daunting budget shortfalls, those negotiations have been anything but smooth.

In December, the county threatened to impose a 14 percent reduction in pay and benefits on SEBA’s Specialized Peace Officers bargaining unit, which includes probation officers, coroner investigators and welfare-fraud investigators.

To avoid that, the unit approved a contract with a 7 percent cut in benefits and a reduction in annual merit raises from 5 percent to 2.5 percent.

The county is now negotiating with the unit that represents sheriff’s deputies, SEBA’s largest constituency.

In the context of the negotiations, both initiative proposals look a lot like bargaining chips.

The irony here is that, in these difficult economic times, both measures will probably pass if they make it to the ballot.

To read entire story, click here.