Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Government’

Public Agencies and Public Benefits

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve read through the comments posted on a news article about the compensation and benefits paid to the employees of public agencies only to find a slew of comments about how the agencies “operate in secret” and “work behind closed doors.”

That always strikes us as funny, because the articles these readers are commenting on almost always came about because of some sort of public disclosure the agency is required to make. Lately, it’s been documentation compiled by the State Controller. Often, it’s based on Public Records Act request the agencies have received from reporters and have little choice but to comply with.  Or an agenda item at a public board meeting.  So, what secrets? What closed doors?

Still, the spotlight is on public agencies, and it’s going to stay there for a while before it moves on to make someone else uncomfortable. The effects of a tsunami of articles on public employee pensions, mid-six-figure compensation packages for agency heads and the growing unfunded pension obligations have made this a hot issue.  A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (theoretically a non-partisan group), revealed the not-surprising finding that the public’s discontent with government employee pensions and benefits is rising, and that the most popular suggestion for how to cut government budget deficits is to cut spending on “pension plans of government employees.”

The issue is hitting home.  We saw this week that Helix Water District in suburban east San Diego County is the target of a citizen group, East County Tax Hawks.  The Hawks like the District’s water service just fine, but think the employee benefit package is way out of whack – at least 24 days of paid time off a year (above recognized holidays), 100% of health insurance costs paid by the District and “over the top” retirement benefits.

The District responded to these charges as well as they can, by comparing their benefits to other water agencies’ benefits, and showing how they’ve cut operating expenses.  At a recent public meeting, Helix’s board president, DeAna Verbeke, acknowledged the public’s concerns, stated the agency also is concerned … then added, “employees have rights too.”

Of course they do, but that message probably will do nothing to reduce the ire felt by the Hawks, who probably see public sector employee contracts more as gifts of public funds than as legitimate payment for work done.  That doesn’t mean they have to keep that opinion, or that their opinion should be parroted by others in the District. Avoiding that will take communication and clarity.  Districts are going to have to face this issue head-on or risk the election of new directors set on slashing expenses by unreasonable amounts.

Based on my 30 years in public affairs and crisis management, here are some suggestions for your consideration:

  • With all contracts, work with other public agencies to obtain apples-to-apples data and take board action to commit to being “average” in compensation and benefits.
  • Push employees to re-open contract negotiations that aren’t set to be re-opened soon.  They may refuse, but the public will appreciate the effort.
  • With employee compensation packages, focus on the trimmings, not the meat.  People expect rank-and-file employees to be fairly compensated, but don’t like overly generous frills in public employee contracts.  Paid off-days, health insurance costs and the like will be scrutinized.
  • Check your $100,000-plus pensions, which are the subject of particular scrutiny.  How many do you currently have; how many do you expect to have? How many years did those people work?  How much did the agency pay in?
  • Compare your GM and Board salaries, payments and perks to other agencies’ and be prepared to answer questions on anything that stands out from the crowd.
  • Expect scrutiny and be as prepared for it as you would be for an operational mishap.  Keep your compensation data on hand and up to date, and have messages prepared that anticipate the difficult questions you’re likely to receive.

If you’d like to discuss this further, give me – Laer – a call at 949/599-1212.

Jerry’s Jack Benny Moment

Jerry Brown after his solo flight

They should drop Bob Hope’s name from Burbank’s airport terminal and put up Jack Benny’s.  Benny, as younger readers may not recall, made a career out of humor based on his obsessive frugality – well, cheapness, to be more exact.  I was reminded of him this week when Gov. Jerry Brown emerged from the terminal solo on Thursday morning, after flying without entourage or security on Southwest flight 896, even refusing to pay the $18 seat upgrade.

A sputnik moment it wasn’t – but a Plymouth moment it most certainly was.

Brown is a master of political symbolism and nothing could have rekindled the image of the beat-up Plymouth he drove the last time he was governor than his choice of transportation last Thursday.  Never mind that members of the State Senate and Assembly fly solo to and from Sacramento just about every week – after Schwarzenegger’s over-sized Hollywood presence, the gesture was a perfect one for communicating the governor’s stated commitment to a new era of frugality in Sacramento.

Brown’s symbolism isn’t remotely like President Obama’s. There are no cool logos or spiffed up soundbites.  Heck, he even calls what he’s seeking “a path to fiscal rectitude.” No pollsters or political messaging consultants got their hands on that phrase.  Still, there’s a lot of finesse behind Brown’s symbolism. Check out the photo.  How did all those reporters and photographers know to be outside the airport terminal if they weren’t given a heads-up by Brown’s hard-working communications staff?

Certainly, there are security risks if he keeps up this form of transportation, but t here are also political ones. What happens the first time he travels with staff and security? Will the press call it the end of his path to fiscal rectitude?  What if his seat-mate is hostile, instead of a complacent state employee, as happened this time? And more importantly, how will he cope with the inevitable realization that California’s problems are too big to be solved by mere symbolism, no matter how spot on it may be?

Thirty years in public affairs has taught me there are no magic words and no magic symbols.  Fixing things takes hard work and is most often done incrementally, with several “Plan B’s” employed along the way. But given the choice between flying solo or talking austerity from a limo, Brown gets an “A” for symbolism, even if it ultimately accomplishes little.

Inside the Brown Horseshoe

In case you missed it last week, Gov. Brown has released his “insider” appointments – the policy, press and legal folks that work “inside the horseshoe,” making the decisions and statements that will define the Brown Administration.

Our water and development clients should read Nancy McFadden’s bio very carefully, as the former PG&E policy Senior VP will probably be their primary senior interface with the governor’s office.  Public affairs and policy wonks are required to memorize the entire list.  Quiz Friday.  Here’s the full list, arranged alphabetically:

Elizabeth Ashford, 35, of Sacramento, has been appointed Deputy Press Secretary in the Office of the Governor. She worked at the Brunswick Group in London, England from 2009 to 2010. Prior to that, Ashford worked in the Office of the Chairman of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. From 2006 to 2008, she served as Chief Deputy Communications Director and then Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Administration. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $130,000. Ashford is a Democrat.

Anne Gust Brown, 52, of Oakland (Brown’s wife), has been appointed Special Counsel in the Office of the Governor. This position does not require Senate confirmation and Gust Brown will serve with no compensation. Gust Brown is a Democrat.

Gil Duran, 34, of Tulare, has been appointed Press Secretary in the Office of the Governor. Duran served as Communications Director for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein from 2008 to 2010. Previously, he served as Press Secretary to Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa from 2007 to 2008. Duran also served as an aide and Press Secretary to Governor Brown as Mayor of Oakland from 2004 to 2007. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Duran is a Democrat.

Joshua Groban, 37, of Los Angeles, has been appointed Senior Advisor for Policy and Appointments in the Office of the Governor. Groban served as Legal Counsel for Governor Brown’s 2010 campaign and previously practiced law at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in Los Angeles. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Groban is a Democrat.

Julie Henderson, 48, of San Francisco, has been appointed Senior Advisor for Policy in the Office of the Governor. Henderson was a Special Assistant Attorney General while Brown was Attorney General and previously was a Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Gap Inc. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Henderson is a Democrat.

Jim Humes, 51, of San Francisco, has been appointed Executive Secretary for Administration, Legal Affairs, and Policy in the Office of the Governor. Humes was Brown’s Chief Deputy while Brown was Attorney General, and before that Humes was the Chief of the Civil Division under then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $175,000. Humes is a Democrat.

Nancy McFadden, 51, of Sacramento, has been appointed Executive Secretary for Legislation, Appointments, and Policy in the Office of the Governor. She was senior vice president at PG&E from 2005 to 2010. Previously, McFadden served as senior advisor to Governor Gray Davis from 2001 to 2003, deputy chief of staff for the Office of the Vice President from 2000 to 2001, and general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1996 to 2000. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $175,000. McFadden is a Democrat.

Jonathan Renner, 40, of Sacramento, has been appointed Legal Affairs Secretary in the Office of the Governor. Renner was Senior Assistant Attorney General for Government Law while Brown was Attorney General. Prior to that, Renner practiced law at Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, in Sacramento. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Renner is a Democrat.

Nick Velasquez, 30, of Los Angeles, has been appointed Director of External Affairs in the Office of the Governor. Velasquez served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Governor Brown’s 2010 campaign. Previously, he headed the California Accountability Project at the Democratic Governor’s Association. From 2006 to 2009 he served as a senior communications and policy aide to Los Angeles City Attorneys Rockard Delgadillo and Carmen Trutanich. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $80,000. Velasquez is a Democrat.

Evan Westrup, 28, of Sacramento, has been appointed Deputy Press Secretary in the Office of the Governor. He was Deputy Press Secretary on Governor Brown’s 2010 campaign after serving as Deputy Press Secretary in the Office of Attorney General Brown between 2009 and 2010. Prior to that, Westrup was Deputy Youth Vote Director on President Obama’s Campaign in New Mexico in 2008. He was Associate Communications Director in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Administration from 2007 to 2008. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $71,000. Westrup is a Democrat.

The Nuttiest of NIMBYs

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse for NIMBYs – the Not-In-My-Back-Yard activists who have plummeted in decision-makers’ perception from noble protectors of neighborhoods to crybabies wanting to win a big jackpot for their “hardship” – we came across this:

In their lawsuit, the homeowners say the project, which involves mixing soil and cement deep underground along the levee line, will be disruptive and could damage their homes and yards. They’re also concerned about noise from equipment that could approach 90 decibels, about as loud as a motorcycle.

Sounds like a run-of-the-mill NIMBY complaint, right?  But wait … these aren’t just any NIMBYs.  These are the folks who live along the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans – yes, that canal, the one famous for failing during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leading to the destruction of entire neighborhoods.  And this is just the latest skirmish in a simmering battle between homeowners and the government that has spawned lawsuits, appeals and multiple court rulings.

The canal, by the way, was built about 100 years ago, long before any of these folks purchased homes alongside it.  At that time, they apparently thought it was a fine thing to have water cruising by their back yards at the level of their roofs.  But let’s not let that get in the way of them upping the decibel level of their whining.

Prop 26 – A New Way To Stop Projects?

Given how deft Sacramento is at hiding taxes as fees in order to avoid the mandatory two-thirds vote for taxes, who didn’t vote for Prop 26, so fees will also be subject to a two-thirds vote?  Well, actually 4.3 million Californians didn’t, by current count. Fortunately for wallet-watchers, 4.7 million voted yes.

But California is nothing if not the Land of Unintended Consequences.  Now it looks like Prop 26 could be a nifty new way for state regulatory boards like the California Coastal Commission or a Regional Water Quality Control Board, which are subject to its provisions, to delay new development projects.

Development fees are not subject to Prop 26, so if a new project is dinged a nice little bucket of cash to improve signals at some intersections it’s impacting, no special vote  is required.  That’s fine – the authors of the California Chamber-sponsored proposition anticipated that, and wrote the measure to protect developers.

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LP&A Creates New LinkedIn Group for Water Policy Professionals

Thanks to Laer Pearce & Associates, professionals that work with water policy around the world now have a LinkedIn group where they can discuss topics related to helping set and navigate water policy.  The Water Policy Professionals group encourages members to discuss legislation, communication strategies, regulations, incentives and news regarding policy on water supply, quality and pricing.  It will also include job postings and other networking functions.

Laer set up the group because he believes idea-sharing and open communications can help to find consensus on highly contentious issues – or at least move the discussion forward instead of having it bog down in rhetoric wars.

The group is a sister to LP&A’s other LinkedIn group, Water Conservation Professionals, which has 513 members. Seven people joined Water Policy Professionals in its first 30 minutes.

LP&A has been working on water-related issues for more than 20 years and is actively involved in helping to set policy for water issues on local, regional and state-wide levels.  We currently serve four water and wastewater agencies and CalDesal, a nonprofit advocating for pro-desalination policies and regulation in California.

Land Weekly 3: Friendlier or Snippier Times Ahead?

What were the three biggest California water stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here every Thursday, or you can follow LPALand on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here.  This week:

Friendlier Feds, Snippier State Regulators?

According to political insiders – and pretty much anybody who’s ever dealt with an appointed regulatory body – having more Republicans in office generally is good news for permit-seekers in the housing industry.  So the outcome of last week’s election should bring some hopey, changey prospects in the short-term nationwide, as the GOP takes over key committee posts in the House and a slew of new Republican governors take office.  Here in California, it’s a whole different story.  Tuesday meant at least four more years of Jerry Brown, whose agenda will be topped, said CalWatchdog’s Steven Greenhut at a recent luncheon, by environmental issues and slowing (or stopping!) new development.  That’s not exactly change we can believe in.

Read the Real Estate Channel‘s take on the GOP win

Read MSNBC’s take

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Local Land-Use Matters Split November Ballot

The San Diego Union Tribune identified 17 key local land-use matters before California voters on Tuesday.  After all the votes were cast, nine resulted in positive news for the building industry, while eight weren’t so great.  See the rundown below.

Merced County Measure C: Voter Confirmation of Zoning Changes - Failed

Considered a slow growth initiative and known originally as the “Save Farmland Initiative,” Measure C would amend the county’s general plan to require voter approval whenever ten or more acres would be converted from agricultural or open space to residential use.

Yes 43.84%

No 56.16%

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The Weekly 3: Land Development

What are the three biggest stories each week in the world of California land development?  You’ll find them right here each Monday, or follow LP&A all week long on Twitter at @LPALand for up-to-the-minute news and analysis.  This week:

1. Is Developing Alameda Point worth the hassle?

Alameda Point - What Could Have Been

The city of Alameda voted last week to terminate an exclusive negotiating agreement with SunCal for development of the city’s former Navy base, which closed 15 years ago.  SunCal invested nearly $15 million during its four-year process, but was stymied by ever-changing political winds, a city staff with personal agendas and a public that’s not happy without a fight on its hands.  SunCal came on board in 2006 after a partnership of Shea and Catellus got fed up and walked away, which begs the question:  Is developing Alameda Point worth the hassle?  >>Read More

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Bummed Out Voters In OC

Here’s a troubling stat, from the Brandman University 2010 State of Orange County survey:

In 2000, 38 percent of Orange County residents felt their quality of life was going very well, and only nine percent thought it was going badly. In 2010, eight percent thought their quality of life was going very well and 35 percent thought it was going badly. This dramatic reversal means, at one level, a greater dissatisfaction with local government.

In our experience, there is a far greater chance decisions made by local government will be challenged by referenda in times like these, compared to more happy-go-lucky times.