Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster

BY JEFF HORSEMAN
STAFF WRITER
jhorseman@pe.com

Published: 17 May 2012 08:27 PM

It’s easy to see who Riverside County’s public employee unions want for First District county supervisor.

They’re knocking on doors, offering endorsements and spending thousands of dollars to help Mike Soubirous oust incumbent Bob Buster in the June 5 primary. Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, is the third candidate, setting the stage for a possible two-man runoff in November.

Soubirous, who retired last year after 29 years with the California Highway Patrol, counts heavily on unions to fill his campaign coffers.

Of the almost $255,000 in donations he received between November 2011 and March, 98.8 percent came from labor, campaign finance records show. The Riverside Sheriff’s Association alone gave him two checks for $100,000 each.

Soubirous, 54, defends his union support.

“If anything, I’m honored to represent hard-working county employees that give us many years of their lives,” said Soubirous, whose wife, Linda, had union backing in her unsuccessful 2004 supervisor campaign against Buster.

All three candidates are well-funded. Campaign finance reports for January through March showed each had at least $200,000 in reserve.

Buster, a 67-year-old citrus farmer and the county’s longest-tenured supervisor – first elected in 1993 – said unions are targeting him because he supported much-needed reforms to the county’s pension system.

The unions “enjoyed more than 10 years of great gains to the point where they became a little arrogant and they didn’t really understand how severe the situation is for this county,” he said.

Jeffries, 51, R-Lake Elsinore, hopes his record in Sacramento and endorsements by business and taxpayer groups will carry the day. The property owner/manager said he turned down a state Senate run because “local government is where my heart is.”

The trio is competing for the right to represent 433,000 people in a district encompassing most of Riverside, Lake Elsinore, Canyon Lake and Wildomar. Each of the five supervisors earns $143,031 annually and are entitled to a $550-a-month car allowance, pensions, health insurance and other benefits.

The First District race will be a test of unions’ ability to sway the electorate, said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political science professor.

Even though the county is politically conservative, public safety unions have avoided voters’ scorn out of respect for police and firefighters, Bowler said. “The more the sheriff’s and some of the unions are open and politically active, the less special they’re seen,” he said. “That’s the risk they’re taking.”

Pension showdown

The county’s two largest unions, Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 777 and Service Employees International Union Local 721, represent more than 12,000 of the county’s 17,700 or so employees. The Riverside Sheriff’s Association has about 2,500 members.

Buster, a former Riverside City Council member, used to get along with unions. LIUNA gave him $5,500 from 2007 to 2009, records show.

Relations soured in 2004, when the sheriff’s union issued a no-confidence vote in Buster, partly to protest low staffing levels. Association President Robert Masson declined to comment.

Tensions rose in 2010 and 2011, when the county faced an $800 million shortfall to cover $4.5 billion worth of pension obligations over 30 years.

Buster and other supervisors called for lower pension benefits for new hires. Union members protested the move and complained Buster was vilifying them.

The sheriff’s union and supervisors accused each other of spreading falsehoods during the 2010 campaign for dueling pension ballot measures. Measure L, backed by the union, would have required voter approval to cut public safety pensions. Measure M, supported by supervisors, authorized the board to cut those benefits.

Measure M got more yes votes than Measure L in 2010. Buster spent his campaign dollars to back Measure M.

In separate talks, the unions and county have reached deals that call for lesser pensions for new employees and increased pension contributions by current workers. In exchange, the county agreed to pay raises.

‘Fresh approach’

SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover said his union is “just looking really for a fresh approach and new ideas and we think Mike Soubirous … is a step in the right direction for us,” he said.

In an e-mail, LIUNA Business Manager Stephen Switzer wrote that Buster is more interested in demonizing union members than finding real solutions. The average LIUNA member’s pension is less than $19,000 a year, while Buster will enjoy an annual pension exceeding $100,000, he wrote.

The annual county portion of Buster’s pension could reach $110,340 by Dec. 31, 2016, if he is re-elected, according to county records. Buster also will receive credit in the state pension system for his Riverside council time and military service.

Buster called talk about his pension “really irrelevant” and “rhetoric.” He noted that Soubirous, who retired as an acting commander, draws a public pension worth nearly $122,000 a year before taxes.

Soubirous said he took the pension terms and conditions offered at the time.

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