Public Employee Pensions

Are They the Root of the Public Outcry or Do We Need to Take Another Look at the Budgeting Process?

By Geoffrey McLennan

As we have all witnessed since the 2008 Recession, there have been a rash of public pension violations that have led to much public consternation, proposed changes and enacted reforms regarding employee pensions. Some cases of pension mismanagement nationwide have resulted in fundamental challenges to the trust in the civil service. However, I see a broader problem other than just pension abuses.

Over the years I experienced mostly a rewarding career in upward mobility, professional growth and hopefully a funded retirement. There were times when I wondered if I would ever live to claim a pension. I experienced physical threats from disgruntled external customers, considerable stress from reductions in force and the typical berating that many public employees take over the course of a lifetime from the politically driven. I can recall Paul Volcker, as Chairman of the National Commission on the Public Service (aka “Volcker Commission”), attendance at an ASPA sponsored event at Sacramento State University. He eloquently defended the public service in the United States, including the wages and pensions. It is somewhat disconcerting after 30 years that the Volker Commission’s report still stands as a foundation for further change in personnel management and pensions.

However, we have witnessed some extreme excesses in post-retirement benefits as more broadly defined as deferred compensation. These excesses are clearly a violation of the public trust and no one in or near the public service offers any defense of such selfish actions. Fortunately, public opinion has forced lawmakers and public managers to more carefully monitor pension applications and payments. Quite frankly, some pension managers and public employers have been remiss in managing some pension applications. Recent reforms have addressed the most egregious pension abuse cases (City of Bell, California) and if pension managers act diligently, then these worst abuses should not recur.

Several local governments have been forced to cut public safety and other public services to fund existing public retiree packages, including public safety pensions. This has been the case for a minority of local governments in California and possibly in other states. However, the promise of long-term retiree obligations should be no surprise to responsible managers and elected officials. These same responsible parties incurred considerable long-term indebtedness for other projects and procurements along the way. No need to mention the localities, but the bonded indebtedness for civic centers, public works and other municipal improvements add to the broader consideration of the long-term budgeting responsibility. The Dodd-Frank law makes that responsibility permanent.

The shortcomings of several localities budgets were noted in the February 2013 issue of Governing Magazine. In this article titled “Mind the Gap,” many cases of local government budgetary distress are indicated by the possibility of “fiscal innocence” and other means of ignorance of new budgetary laws on fiscal responsibility. Many localities have had their credit rating downgraded due to missed bond payments during the recent recession. As further noted,

“Municipal and state leaders face an entirely new regulatory climate with the passage of the federal Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That law is bringing increased scrutiny of government financial performance on all levels.”

Dodd-Frank will also mandate new accounting guidelines for pension liability reporting. We must require that all obligations in budgets are completely reviewed consistent with law and thorough stewardship of the public trust.

When elected officials and other budget stakeholders do not address all budgetary obligations, then we have a serious problem beyond unfunded pensions. We lose the public’s trust in public administration and eventually we lose quality public employees who offer the services.

Do you view this issue differently?

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Love Thy Neighbor as Yourself

By Winnie Eke

From states’ restrictions on voting rights, to laws infringing on women’s rights, to the killing fields in urban America, I wonder why so many on the right continue to spew their religiosity. Is it that the religious zealots do not understand the words and texts of the Bible or are they full of hate?

I am no expert on theology. But I know of a verse from my childhood that my pastor said was very important: love thy neighbor as thy self (Mark 12: 31).

According to religious scholars, this verse is the golden rule on how to treat others. I cannot but wonder if those who claim to be religious think of their neighbors as only those people in their same economic class, race or political party. Could that poor interpretation of a biblical neighbor be the basis of hate groups like the KKK, white supremacists or the Black Panther Party?

According to Pew Research, the majority of young people do not identify with any organized religion. Hateful speeches and intolerance of  “religious” people do it make it welcoming to be a believer.

For those who blame everything on the lack of religion, perhaps they should learn to live and lead like Christ:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Your thought.

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Trust and Verify

By Craig Donovan

We are, as the saying goes, living in interesting times. The recent events in Baltimore are but the latest iceberg to drift across the national consciousness. Going back as far as the period of Edwin Meese as Attorney General, our country has undergone a slow but sure change in the role of and view of law enforcement. This change has culminated in today’s outright militarization.

For those of us of a certain age, the stylized and comforting image of our police ranged from the small town Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, to the big city officers of Adam Twelve and Barney Miller, to the men and women of The FBI, Hawaii Five-O and CHIPS. We saw the mean streets of Hills Street Blues and Miami Vice. Eventually S.W.A.T. teams appeared and we moved farther into the meaner streets patrolled by ever heavier armed officers.

On any news show, anywhere across the country, you can see examples of police units in body armor, carrying assault weapons and driving military vehicles while patrolling our streets. To many people, the only difference between Fallujah and Ferguson is the color of camo. Even when we consider less extreme examples of officers in their regular uniforms on patrol, we still see examples of deadly force being used first, accompanied by escalating attitudes of contempt for the people they are supposed to ‘protect.’

The issue has permeated the national zeitgeist. A recent late night monologue asked the question: how to tell the difference between a ‘police show on TV and real life? They only chase the bad guys on television.’

At the heart of this is a resulting loss of trust in those who enforce the laws. No one believes all or even most officers are abusing their power. But these perpetrators and their actions on the force are now seen as being more than a rare bad apple. There is concern that current generations of law enforcers see themselves as above the law and many of the citizenry beneath it.

No longer can we blindly accept the word of anyone, sworn officer or not, to be the truth and nothing but the truth. While we can and must trust those who enforce our laws, today it is trust and verify. What better way to verify than through the use of body cameras?

donovan mayBody cameras have been around for many years but it is only recently that the technology has caught up with the practical needs of daily policing. Body cameras are more common than many might assume. As many as a third of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies are using them in some form. However, with neither state nor federal mandates or guidelines, two-thirds of today’s officers operate unobserved or unmonitored.

Cameras on all officers are just the beginning. Guidelines must be clear and unambiguous about what is recorded. For example, cameras should be on anytime a gun is drawn or in response to a call. All of these recordings must be stored and retained for a reasonable but significant length of time.

What about access to the data from police recordings? Officers are public servants, operating in the execution of their duties. As such this data must be available to not just law enforcement and prosecutors but to the public and their representatives as well.

There will be a cost to equipping all our law enforcement agents with cameras, but the cost of failing to do so is incalculably greater. The standard of ‘he said-she said,’ with the police always assumed to be correct, is no longer acceptable or practical. Every citizen is carrying a phone and many of them are equipped with a camera. There can be no tolerance for an officer who will not wear a camera and record their actions, no acceptance of technical difficulties.

With great power comes great responsibility and the need for great accountability. Our law enforcers carry the power of life versus death, freedom versus incarceration. What power could be greater or call for the greatest level of observation and review possible?

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Is Transparency Worth Its Reputation?

By Tom Miller

Government transparency is short hand for management that is accountable, welcoming and honest. Transparent government is good government with expected outcomes like more fairness, economic strength, citizen engagement and quality of life for residents. These anticipated outcomes are to be admired even if only imagined.

One can conjure a county or even a country where government is honest and welcoming but where things, nevertheless, aren’t so good. I suspect residents of many American cities have elected neighbors who are both transparent and inept. So the positive aspects of transparency may be given, but the outcomes of transparency are promises waiting to be proven.

From a recent and unusual study, evidence shows that transparency is effective in one aspect of modern-day governance: public opinion research. Transparency in opinion surveys is about full disclosure of methods so that readers can determine the quality of the study, answering questions such as:

  • Who sponsored the study?
  • What exactly was the wording of the survey questions?
  • How many people were contacted to get the number of respondents who participated?
  • What were the dates of data collection?

Transparent research should be more credible because full disclosure of methods builds reader trust. Transparent research should be better research because the unforgiving lens of scrutiny will urge researchers to be most careful.

The American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) has created a Transparency Initiative (TI) which requires members to adhere to a set of specifications for reporting key aspects of the survey process. A recent study that examined the accuracy of surveys done by members or supporters of the TI provided evidence that transparent surveys were better than surveys that were not transparent. (Truth in reporting, this author’s company is a member of the TI.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how survey accuracy generally is determined. With polling companies in the businesses of determining voter intentions and the vote itself, it is possible to see which companies have come closer to the vote predicted by their surveys.

Nate Silver, the polling guru, published the study comparing the track record of ‘transparent’ polling firms to those that were not members of the AAPOR TI (or another organization whose members are expected to show high standards in polling, National Council on Public Polls (NCPP). Remarkably, transparent polls have made better voting predictions not only recently, but since the study date’s onset in 1998. (See chart below)

miller apr may

Linking important processes to fundamental outcomes often proves to be an exasperating task. Proving that transparent government leads to better quality of community life may be as tough as establishing a link between eating good food and living a long life. So it is noticeable that transparency in survey research does lead to demonstrably more accurate results. The proof comes from an independent researcher with no path to aggrandizement, whatever the research outcome.

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A Call For Commonsense Immigration Reform

By Wiha Powell

“We didn’t raise the Statue of Liberty with her back to the world; we did it with her light shining as a beacon to the world. And whether we were Irish or Italians or Germans crossing the Atlantic, or Japanese or Chinese crossing the Pacific; whether we crossed the Rio Grande or flew here from all over the world — generations of immigrants have made this country into what it is. It’s what makes us special.” President Obama, Nov. 21, 2014

It is no secret that the U.S. immigration system is broken. On November 2014, President Obama announced a series of executive orders in hopes of helping the 11 million undocumented immigrants. The president’s aim is to crack down on illegal immigration at the border, prioritize deporting felons (not families) and require certain undocumented immigrants to pass a criminal background check and pay taxes in order to temporarily stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

The president also seeks to expand the population eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Specifically, the expansion would extend the period of DACA and work authorization from two years to three years. It would also allow parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to request deferred action and employment authorization for three years under the new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program. However, they must have lived in the U.S. continuously since Jan. 1, 2010, and are required to pass background checks.

The majority of our leaders can agree that our immigration system is broken. Yet, instead of either supporting the president’s executive orders or suggesting a better fix, opponents like Texas Governor Greg Abbott find themselves on the wrong side of the immigration debate. Soon after the president’s announcement, Abbott claimed the orders were “eroding the very foundation of our nation’s Constitution and bestowing a legacy of lawlessness” and vowed to challenge them in court. The recent decision from U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, which blocks an executive order that offers work permits and protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants, came as a win to Abbott and his followers.

The majority of illegal immigrants seek the promise of freedom and opportunity. However, our current system does not provide a way for them to become legal. With such a broken system, families are separated, undocumented workers are exploited, people are dying as they cross the border and widespread discrimination against immigrants persists.

A commonsense immigration reform is needed. Those political leaders who are against reform should stop politicking and figure out a way to fix the system because immigration is vital to this country. The more our leaders put it off; millions of undocumented immigrants will live in fear of deportation and being torn apart from their family.

This nation was formed on the backs of immigrants. Our treatment of them should reflect the values of fairness and equality, which is a practice that is deeply rooted in our society. Wouldn’t it be great to once again bear witness to America recommitting itself to this unique role? Showing everyone that it is possible to create a country where many cultures can coincide to create a true democratic society.

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Untie Your Hands For Freddie Gray and Others Like Him

By Henry Smart, III

By now, most of us have heard of the tragic deaths of Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Walter Scott, Sean Bell and Eric Garner. The list of unarmed black men killed by police officers is much longer than the names mentioned here and that is truly unfortunate.

Many of us would like for the issue–excessive police force that is racially-biased–to come to an end. Many of us would like to see progress in this area and maybe even take part in the protests that are occurring throughout the United States. However, those of us who have committed our life’s work to the benefit of the public have our hands tied.

Some of us would like to participate in the street-level activism, but often times our employers prevent us from full participation in such acts. Those who have a vested interest in the public sector, administrators and scholars alike, run the risk of subjecting their future employment and any future work-product to unwarranted scrutiny. We are held to a higher code of ethics. Yet, the irony here is that most of us are vested in public processes because we want what’s best for the collective.

A few weeks ago I participated in a diversity workshop sponsored by Virginia Tech. Dr. Samuel Betances was the workshop facilitator. During the workshop he asked the audience how they could tell if someone was an acquaintance or a friend. Dr. Betances said, if someone is a friend, they are welcome to go straight to your kitchen, open up the refrigerator and look for something to eat. An acquaintance may never be invited to your house, let alone take the liberty of helping themselves to your food. He then asked the audience how many of their friends have a status that is different from their own, such as race, height, class, or sexual orientation. At that moment I was reminded of a truth. Race relations cannot just be dealt with by passing law; it has to start with each person.

When was the last time you invited someone to your home that was different?

Most of us have never done so. If we have invited difference into our home, it’s not happening on a routine basis. More importantly, those people are not our friends. We are living in silos that are based on age, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and a myriad of “isms.”

Our personal values and experiences make an imprint on our work environment. It is fairly evident that several of our police departments have issues with culture. Some of the cultures are upholding stereotypes that are false and they have deadly consequences. As public servants, we must take into consideration how we influence our organizations and public service.

Is our baggage contributing to a much larger problem? If so, we have the power to change that; our hands are not tied.

If you are still reading this, I would like for you to take up a challenge. Once a month for the next year, invite difference into your home. Cook for them, learn who they are, what makes them tick and show them the best of you. After each visit, observe yourself to see if there is an improvement in your interactions with those who are “different.” If you see no improvement, I will cook you dinner at my house.

Eat well and eat different.

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Racketeering in Public Service

By Jason Bowns

Can a school district function as a criminal enterprise? What about a probation department or a political party organization? According to recent convictions for violating federal and state racketeer influenced and corrupt organization (RICO) laws, the answer is “yes.”

RICO was initially designed to combat La Casa Nostra when it was originally sponsored by U.S. Senator John McClellan and drafted by his legislative aide, G. Robert Blakely. President Richard Nixon signed RICO into law Oct. 15, 1970.

Bowns april 1

Photo Credit: Politico

The federal RICO law reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person through a pattern of racketeering activity or through collection of an unlawful debt to acquire or maintain, directly or indirectly, any interest in or control of any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce.”

By definition, “Racketeering activity” covers a broad range of conduct including “any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in obscene matter or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical…which is chargeable under state law and punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.”

Racketeering includes a range of other various criminal offenses relating to bribery, counterfeiting, fraud, human trafficking, money laundering and biological weapons. Many states enacted RICO laws at the state level, modeled after the federal law. Those states include New York, Georgia, California, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Criminal prosecutions have increasingly taken RICO to new levels, invoking stiff penalties including up to 20 years in prison per count and property forfeiture, in addition to civil penalties.

For example, a standardized test cheating scandal in Atlanta led to the conviction of teachers and administrators under Georgia’s state RICO law. The two defendants who admitted guilt received plea deals providing for probation only and no jail time. However, the eight who refused were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to seven years. The three administrators who received seven years in prison, which is twice what prosecutors had requested, will be resentenced April 30.

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Photo Credit: USA Today

John O’Brien, a former Massachusetts probation commissioner, was convicted last summer of racketeering after a lengthy trial. He was accused of overseeing a rigged hiring system which favored politically connected job candidates to work for the probation department. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. His deputy also received three months in prison.

In New Jersey, former Bergen County Democratic Organization chairman Joseph Ferriero was recently convicted of operating in a racketeering scheme by “running a local political organization as a criminal enterprise, using his power and position to line his pockets.”

These cases move far beyond the original intent of RICO to prosecute members of La Cosa Nostra. Should RICO be used to prosecute former public servants in this way, to send them to prison? Do white-collar criminals deserve lighter sentences than violent ones?

George Orwell once wrote, “But of course it was an American paper. The Americans always go one better on any kinds of beastliness, whether it is ice-cream, racketeering or theosophy.”

Surely the same can now be said of racketeering prosecutions.

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