Vern here. I noticed this great (although not entirely completed) interview with Mayor Tait, sitting among Greg’s “drafts” from last September, and thought it was still well worth publishing. Greg had re-assembled the interview from quick notes and his memory; I prodded him to finish it up. I ran it past Tom and, with a few small revisions, he’s approved it.
Let’s go back to mid-September – Anaheim’s first district elections for Council were fast approaching, and on the Liberal OC blog the loathsome Dan Chmielewski was attacking Mayor Tom Tait nonstop. Wait – why? Tom was not up for re-election. Well, partly because attacking Tom dishonestly is something Chmielewki just can’t stop doing. But more specifically he was trying to discredit progressive Council candidate and Tait ally Dr. José Moreno, through guilt by association, for the benefit of his friend, disgraced klepto-Dem Jordan Brandman. (And throwing in Tait’s other endorsed Democrat candidate Arturo Ferreras just as collateral damage I guess.)
(Chmielewski’s Republican doppelganger Matt Cunningham was using the same guilt-by-association tactic in reverse on his AnaheimBlog – trying to discredit Tom among Republicans for daring to have allies who are scary “leftist progressive Chicano-studies” etc. But at least Matt gets paid for his propaganda.)
And what was Chmielewski’s major line of attack against Mayor Tait? That he was “anti-union.” Apparently unsatisfied with the strength of that charge, he eventually ramped it up: “There is no other elected official in Orange County more anti-labor than Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait,” Chmielewski raved on September 15, as though he had never heard of the Righeimer cabal in Costa Mesa, the Tyler Diep cabal in Westminster, or our Board of Supervisors.
Well, my colleague Greg Diamond reckoned Tom should have his say about that and other issues, and gave him a call on September 18. Here’s what we ended up with, I give you Diamond and Tait:
OJ: Thanks for returning my call. I wanted to know if you’ve read Dan Chmielewski’s recent Liberal OC column about you, in which he attacks Dr. Moreno and Arturo Ferraras?
TT: No, I don’t read that blog.
OJ: He says that you’re the “most anti-union Mayor” in Orange County — in fact, the most anti-union elected official of any kind. Is that true?
TT: No. What? Why does he say that?
OJ: Well, he gives three links as evidence, which I’d like to ask you about. But first: do you have any suspicion of what it can mean?
TT: I don’t know. Maybe it’s pension reform.
OJ: Yeah, that’s most of it. Is your position on pension reform anti-union?
TT: No. In fact, I think of it as pro-union, because it’s anti-civic-bankruptcy. Unions have the same stake in the City’s solvency as everyone else. In any case, it’s mostly Public Safety Union pensions — police and fire — that are the problem. Those are most of what you deal with at the municipal level.
OJ: What’s your position on what you call “pension reform?” What does that phrase even mean, as applied to your positions?
TT: Basically, you have a public employee pension system that is unsustainable. We need to protect what we already owe, so going forward we need to change the future formulas — especially for Police and Fire [Departments.]
OJ: So this is a standard Republican “small government” thing?
TT: Not really. In fact, most of the leading figures on this particular issue have been Democrats. Other proposals also lumped under the label of “pension reform” are more from Republicans, but this one group seeking reform isn’t partisan or ideological. It’s just understanding the city’s budget.
OJ: I’m surprised to hear that you think that “pension reform” is a Democratic issue.
TT: It’s neither — it’s non-partisan — but many of the leading figures on this particular part of pension reform have been Democrats. The state constitution says that even if the Mayor and Council and local unions agree on a lower pension formula even on a going forward basis, you can’t change it for existing pensioners — except, it seems, in municipal bankruptcy. Under the State Constitution, pension obligations are like a ratchet wrench — they can go up, but once they’re there then they can’t go down. I understand that that’s the law and we have to follow it, but any big city Mayor understands that unless the pension formulas are addressed — especially for Police and Fire — then the system won’t be able to sustain itself. A few years ago, the Mayor of San Jose, Chuck Reed, decided to try to take on this problem.
OJ: Reed is a Democrat?
TT: Yes, and a Stanford grad. Smart guy — really studied this problem — and politically brave. The Police and Fire unions will attack anyone who tries to rein in their pensions, even for future hires. They’ll endorse candidates who will give them the huge pensions that they want. They know that the voting public assumes that candidates are being attacked based on their lacking respect for public safety. It’s not: it’s based on having respect for math and respect for future citizens of our cities that will have to clean up our mistakes, like “3 at 50.”
OJ: When you say “3 at 50” …?
TT: It’s a pension formula — a very generous one. Every year you work, you get an annual pension based on a certain percentage of what will have been your highest salary — this is why we get “pension spiking” — times the number of years before you retire. If you start as a police officer or fire fighter at age 22, and you work for the city for 28 years and retire at 50, that would mean that you get 84% of your salary per year. Not 84% of your actual salary, but of your highest salary. So if your highest salary was $200,000/year, that’s $168,000 per year for the rest of your life.
OJ: But don’t all employees get that same deal?
TT: No. That’s part of the point. Other unionized city employees have a much less generous deal — as well as much smaller “highest salaries” on which pensions are based. Public safety pensions take up about most of our total pension obligation. We won’t be able to sustain that forever — or even for long. And the longer you wait to try to solve it, the worse your options get. This ends up hurting union members. I think that it’s pro-worker, pro-retiree, pro-existing employee, to take action to save their pensions. It’s not anti-union.
OJ: But Public Safety Unions don’t like your position?
TT: Right. It’s shortsighted. Their own members will really be suffering, down the road, if we don’t change the law.
OJ: So you were a leader in this reform effort?
TT: I’m not sure that I can say “a leader.” Four Democratic Mayors supported it. [Santa Ana Mayor] Miguel Pulido was one of them, although later he withdrew his support. Chuck Reed, the Mayor of San Jose, asked me personally if I would join them — I assumed they wanted to have a Republican Mayor on board. It put me in a spot because I had an election coming up, but I knew that Reed was right, so I signed on to support an initiative.
OJ: I’m really surprised to hear that this pension reform was largely a Democratic position.
TT: It’s a common sense position, with bipartisan support. A Stanford professor of Public Policy, Joe Nation, a former Democratic legislator from Marin County, explains his position by saying “I’m a liberal who can do math.”
OJ: But then why don’t other Republicans Mayors want to be part of this reform?
TT: I don’t know — you’d have to ask them.
OJ: Are they afraid to take on the Police and Fire unions?
TT: Same answer. But those endorsements are usually valuable.
OJ: So if you don’t like “3@50,” what alternatives do you support?
TT: PEPRA [the state’s recent “Public Employees Pension Reform Act”] allows cities to establish a 2.7% pension that’s capped at 82% of highest salary — so you’d get that after 30 years of work. It also allows a cap of 60% of the highest salary after 30 years — you get an additional 2% for every year you work — which is still very good. These only apply to future workers.
OJ: And so that’s your idea of a fair pension?
TT: I’d favor 60% of one’s highest salary, accruing at 2% a year for up to 30 years We could handle that financially — if we don’t give away the store in the meantime. That’s what it was before the rules changed in the late 90s. Regular employees still get that. The pension rate is 50% higher for Pub Safety than others — and that’s on much higher salaries. That’s why these jobs are in such demand.
OJ: So if non-Public Safety employees still get the pension that you favor, are the pensions of those unionized workers a problem?
TT: No, not for our city. The big majority of our issues are with Public Safety and City Management pensions. City management has a 2.7@57 formula.
OJ: So that’s a pension that accrues at 2.7% per year?
TT: Yeah. That’s more lavish than we need or can afford. I voted against that.
OJ: I have to ask: is this a “generational conflict” sort of thing? Is this Baby Boomers saying “we want to get our pensions high because we’re going to get to take ours out first?” Are Boomers ripping off younger workers?
TT: I wouldn’t call it a “rip-off,” because they do have a contract for it. But it does largely have that unfair effect on employees who come along later. Eventually, we are either all going to agree to change the formulas going forward or cities I believe will have to consider municipal bankruptcies. For example Anaheim owes at least $580MM more than we have to pay our existing pensions.
OJ: That sounds like a familiar number!
TT (laughing): Yes, it’s about the same as the hotel subsidies we just passed in July. That was ironic.
OJ: So you were telling me about PEPRA.
TT: Yes. PEPRA allowed cities to offer lower pensions for new employees – and the Council voted for the highest possible pension for new employees.
OJ: Is it fair to say that the Council majority just doles out public money and reaps the political benefit now, leaving future Councils to handle the mess later?
TT: That’s one perspective.
OJ: But you won’t say that yourself. You didn’t get the Public Safety endorsements when you last ran for Mayor, right?
TT: This is true.
OJ: OK, I now want to read to you from the Liberal OC article slamming Dr. Moreno and Arturo Ferraras for accepting your endorsements.
TT: I look forward to working with them. We won’t always agree, but they’re out for the greater public good. As are Denise Barnes and Mark Lopez, whom I’ve endorsed in Districts 1 and 5.
OJ: The article is entitled “Tait’s Usually a Lone Vote ‘No’ Against Anaheim’s Public Employee Unions.”
TT: That’s not true. I’m not opposed to public employee unions. I’m trying to save their pension money.
OJ: We’ll get to that. I’m going to run down the article itself and then we’ll go to the links that Lib OC says prove that you’re anti-union.
OJ: OK, early on he says that the OC GOP has “no balls” and won’t censure you for endorsing Democrats.
TT: He wants them to censure me?
OJ: It’s not clear.
TT: I also endorsed Lorri Galloway. Did he object to that?
OJ: Ha-ha. He doesn’t mention it.
TT: Curt Pringle endorsed Galloway and Brandman, too. I actually treat being Mayor as a non-partisan job. But I don’t know of any such hard and fast rule in the OCGOP against endorsing anyone in a non-partisan race. The feedback I get from the Central Committee is that they realize that I’m fighting a righteous battle in Anaheim, against powerful opponents and tough odds. And they appreciate that I’m holding the line for prudent fiscal policy. It’s not the philosophy of the Republican Party to pick and choose who gets rich off of the public’s tax dollars.
OJ: Brandman endorsed Murray and Eastman in 2014, too.
TT: I remember.
OJ: Here’s what he writes next: “So the notion of Democrats accepting an endorsement from an anti-union Republican mayor who lead [sic] an effort to place INS agents in Anaheim City Jail in the mid-90s strikes me as unacceptable.”
TT: Oh, that. The INS program was not to deport people, but to identify undocumented criminals. We simply needed to know who the people were who were arrested for a crime in order to keep them from going back onto the streets. You know, Congress passed that bill with only one negative vote in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate. Loretta Sanchez came to a[n Anaheim City] Council meeting and took credit for that program. There was later a vote to expand the program to essentially deputized police officers as INS agents. I didn’t support that.
OJ: So the implication that you’re anti-immigrant …?
TT: It’s not true. Not true. I’ve supported expanding comprehensive immigration reform. In the Conference of Mayors, I drafted the letter and worked to get 150 Mayors to sign a bipartisan letter in support of it. About 135 Democrats and 15 Republican Mayors joined in. We’re not going to be known as the anti-immigrant party.
OJ: Next, Lib OC says: “On social media in the past few weeks, Dr. Moreno was championing State Rep. Lorena Gonzalez’s bill to extend 8 hour days and overtime pay for Farm workers which was successfully pushed by the farmworker’s unions. And that was absolutely the right thing to do. So why embrace the support of a Mayor who would have lent support against that bill as he has for other pro-union efforts?” Did you oppose the overtime pay at 8 hours for farmworkers bill?
TT: No. What’s he talking about?
OJ: The farmworkers overtime bill just signed by Governor Brown. Did you support it?
TT: No, I don’t think I was ever asked to take a position on it. I don’t think that I even know about the bill. There are lots of bills in Sacramento that I don’t follow; I’m focused on those that most affect Anaheim. No one brought it to my attention.
OJ: Would you have supported it?
TT: I can’t say. I don’t know the issues at hand; don’t want to give a snap answer.
OJ: Well, at any rate, is it fair for Lib OC to say that you “would have lent support against that bill”?
TT: He has no basis for saying that. I assume that he’s just trying to stir up trouble.
OJ: Fair enough. Now let’s go back to the three links Lib OC said prove that you’re anti-union. The first is to an article entitled “Tait, Pulido Lend Their Names to anti-Union Ballot Measure.” Any comment based on the title?
TT: This was presumably based on the Chuck Reed initiative I mentioned earlier. It was not “Anti-Union.” It was “Pro-Solvency.”
OJ: The article from which the Lib OC article was mostly cut-and-pasted says that it would allow cuts to current employees’ pensions.
TT: First, it didn’t go onto the ballot, But the only way that you’d see cuts to the current pension obligations that employees have vested is if a municipality goes bankrupt. We were already being allowed to cut pensions for future employees, to save money and avoid bankruptcy, although Anaheim chose not to do so. This would simply allow us to bring the future benefits of existing employees and retirees into line with that. They would still have been able to keep the windfall from unwise promises made to them years ago. The only way that they would lose that benefit is if we drain the city dry and it collapses.
OJ: Does that strike you as being anti-union?
TT: No. In Anaheim, it would have affected the only wealthiest pensioners in an effort to ensure that there would be enough money left for all pensioners. How is that anti-union? It’s just common sense.
OJ: The next piece is entitled “Tait’s Usually a Lone Vote ‘No’ Against Anaheim’s Public Employee Unions.” Any reaction to the title?
TT: I don’t think that I “usually” am. I have opposed what I think to be financially irresponsible hikes in pension benefits.
OJ: Lib OC says, “The Mayor voted no on 5 of 10 public employee contracts.” Does that sound right?
TT: For what time period?
OJ: Let me look it up … “Since Tait became Mayor in 2010” — and then through early February 2014 — “he’s voted no on five of 10 Labor MOUs or LOUs [Memorandum or Letter of Understanding] affecting the city’s municipal employee union, firefighters and police. “
TT: Could be. I don’t know the exact figure. I voted for the ones that made sense for Anaheim citizens. Again, it was mostly the Police and Fire contracts that were out of line.
OJ: Here’s a list that he says proves his point. Let’s go through it one by one. The first one is in early 2011. “On March 22, 2011, Tait voted no on a LOU with Anaheim Municipal Employees General/Clerical/PT which temporarily reduced their hourly pay by 5 percent in addition to a 5 percent reduction in salaries for all unrepresented employees as well.”
TT: That’s when I had just gotten elected Mayor. My predecessor, Curt Pringle, had spent out the city’s budget surplus. He had burned through a large portionof the city’s reserves — about $35 million — in two years. At that rate, we’d run out of money after I had been in office for about six months. We had the choice of laying people off or to do a furlough. The employees union was pushing for 5% cut in pay for 10% cut in work. I thought those figures should match.
OJ: Something doesn’t jibe here. Lib OC only mentions a pay cut, not any concomitant cut in hours. “This was a significant sacrifice by the city’s employees – including the non represented staff from the City Manager on down that matched the AMEA agreement – to help balance the budget.”
TT: No, he left something out and so he got it backwards. He doesn’t mention the 10% furlough. We needed that 10% furlough — in fact, even with it, some people got laid off — but we couldn’t afford having 10% less services to get only 5% savings. So that AMEA contract was simply excessive.
OJ: All right, the next vote was on June 5, 2012. “Tait was a no vote on an agreement with the same union that extended an AMEA LOU and provided two lump sum payments with no layoffs and no outsourcing provisions.”
TT: The Voice of OC wrote a good article saying essentially that the vote was the result of a deal between Carrie Nocella of Disney; Todd Ament of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce; and Nick Beradino, the union President of the Orange County Employees Association [OCEA]. Council member Lorri Galloway, with my support, was pushing for a the “Let the People Vote” initiative. It called for public vote on the tax subsidy — technically, a rebate, but in effect a subsidy — to the GardenWalk Hotel project. They reported that the agreement was that the City would give a substantial raise to the public employee unions if OCEA withdrew its support for the petition drive. And that’s what happened. We couldn’t afford the raise and we couldn’t afford the subsidy, let alone both. So of course I voted against it. I believe Lorri had little choice but to support it; she was not going to go against the OCEA raise. But it was an awful deal for the people of the city.
OJ: Lib OC says that there was a freeze on pensions in September 2012. “Tait was again the sole “no” vote on the first MOU for the Anaheim Police Management Association, which froze wages for 3-1/2 years with full compliance for PEPRA.”
TT: That was not a freeze. Anaheim gave its police managers a 12% raise over 3-1/2 years to cover the employee contribution cost of pensions. The Council majority had chosen to give Public Safety the highest pensions for new employees. The City was paying the Police employees’ 12% contribution to their own pensions that had been mandated by PEPRA; PEPRA certainly didn’t mandate that the City had to pay it.
OJ: November 2012. “Tait voted no on a 3-year MOU (and a one year option) with the Anaheim Firefighter’s Association Local 2988 for compliance with PEPRA, changes to staffing language, no wage increases, a second tier pension plan for lateral transfers and funds for additional training.”
TT: Same thing: the council established a system of an 82% pension for new employees versus 60% for new employees that I sought.
OJ: Then, in April 2013, you were a lone “no” vote on an MOU with Anaheim Police Association, providing “compliance with PEPRA, no net wage increases (a 12 percent wage increase over the 2-1/2 year term of the MOU, with an option of two six-month extensions, offset by a 12 percent employee contribution towards PERS.”
TT: Same answer as before
OJ: Let’s go to the third link that Lib OC cites, this one from Voice of OC: How did Anaheim City Employees Negotiate Such a Good Deal?
TT: That, again, refers to the Voice of OC article we just talked about.
OJ: So those were the five “lone ‘no’ votes” that are offered to prove that you’re anti-Labor. Let me focus back from the specifics now. What do you personally think that “being pro-Labor or anti-Labor” means?
TT: I think that always either favoring or opposing the positions of the unions means acting based on ideology or political interest rather than on the merits of the proposal being offered.
OJ: So does that make you pro-Labor, anti-Labor — or, I take it, maybe neither?
TT: I’m for Labor when their position makes sense. For example, problems arise when public safety unions get too self-serving regarding their current, especially top, employees, and when Building Trades push projects that don’t make sense for the City and residents. I don’t question the legitimacy of their wanting to do it. In that sense, they’re not that different from a developer that is pushing for its special interest — and I oppose it when it’s overreach. But I’m not anti-union. Generally — without the ability to organize, business interests could run over the rights of employees – and so to some degree business needs to be held in check. Unions have done a lot of good. Thank God for the UMW [United Mine Workers] in West Virginia coal mining towns. And I’m glad that janitors, and others who can easily be exploited, can be protected by establishing and joining unions. How does that make me “the most anti-union Mayor”?
OJ: How do you feel about worker safety regulations, protections against wage fraud, etc.?
TT: I fundamentally favor worker protections and their right to organize. But that doesn’t mean that workers or their unions are always right in every dispute. I’m pro-business too. There has to be a balance.
OJ: So you’re pro-everyone?
TT: I’m not categorically anti-anyone. I end up favoring different sides at different times in different disputes. The constant is that I’m pro-people of Anaheim. I will look for an intersection of interests, but won’t oppose the best interests of public employees when it’s also in the best interests of the people of Anaheim. That best interest includes fair contracts, fair compensation, and fair treatment. I think that that serves not only them, but us as their employer. I will always fight for my constituents, and I will always hope that the people’s interests overlap those of both businesses and organized labor. Our common enemy should be cronyism and corruption.
OJ: So, to summarize your response to this charge: can you think of other OC Mayors who are more anti-union than you?
TT: I wouldn’t single out anyone. But I don’t think that I’m anti-union or anti-business. At local level, the big unions you deal with are police and fire. But “anti-union” should not mean “failing to give them everything they want anytime they ask.” I think that my position on pensions is actually pro-employee – because I want to save their pensions. The best interests of the people and the unions are the same because neither want the city to go bankrupt – also against these crony capitalist deals the interest should be the same. The people who would take it in the neck in a bankruptcy would be pensioners. My opposition to crony capitalism, keeping the city solvent, is very pro-employee. The worst thing that could happen to employees is if we couldn’t pay our pension obligations – and that’s what I’m fighting to prevent.
OJ: All right — thank you for making time for this. You know that I’m going to have Democrats kicking me in the face over my publishing this, right?
TT: Ha-ha. I hope not! Our parties disagree about many things, but fixing a broken pension system is an area where I really believe that the parties’ best interests overlap with each other and with the best interest of the public.