Tensions rise over Riordan’s Los Angeles city pension reform plan

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan at City Hall Tuesday, November 20, 2012.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan at City Hall Tuesday, November 20, 2012.

Listen to story

Download this story 1MB

Initially, it seemed Richard Riordan would receive the deference usually afforded former mayors at Los Angeles City Hall.

“I’d like to call up Richard Riordan first,” City Council President Herb Wesson announced from his perch at a desk atop a platform inside council chambers on Tuesday.

Riordan, 82, who served for eight years as mayor in the 1990’s, approached the podium for a rare appearance.

“Two minutes Mr. Mayor,” Wesson said curtly.

“Wait, I have an hour and an half,” Riordan joked.  The council president was in no mood: “Not by my watch.”

Wesson and his colleagues heard the former Republican mayor oppose their plan to raise the city’s sales tax (the council later voted 11-4 to place it on the ballot).  Then they heard Riordan predict disaster if voters reject his plan to overhaul the pension system.

“The results, unfortunately, will be the dirty word bankruptcy,” he warned.

Wesson, who opposes Riordan’s pension plan, appeared to have had enough of him.

“Ya know what Mr. Mayor, why didn’t you fix it when you were mayor?” Wesson said.

Riordan tried to respond, but his two minutes were up.

“Oh no, there’s no back and forth,” Wesson said. “I get the last word.”

You see that same tension on the streets of Los Angeles, where signature gatherers hired by the wealthy former mayor are circulating a petition to place his pension proposal on the May ballot.

Under Riordan’s controversial plan, city workers would contribute more of their salaries into the pension system and the city’s contributions to pensions would be frozen when the system isn’t doing well. It would force new city workers into private 401(K) style plans. Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved similar plans earlier this year.

Outside a Trader Joes in Silver Lake last weekend, city workers with Service Employees International Union Local 721 tried to block Warren Stockwell from obtaining signatures.

“They stood in front of the table. They said don’t sign this,” Stockwell said. “They said we are going to stand here all day as long. It's not fair."

Stockwell, who works part time collecting signatures for myriad ballot measures – whether he agrees with them or not – said people should have a right to vote on Riordan’s plan. 

A few feet away, Charlie Mims stood watching. He’s worked as a construction inspector for the city for three decades.

“I agree with him," he said “But I also think people have the right to sign or not sign petitions.”

How intense is the battle?

One union activist sent an email urging people to sign Riordan’s petition with fake names, which could have the effect of making his petitions invalid. Riordan’s spokesman called the move a “dirty trick.”

A statement from the union said the email was sent “without the knowledge of the union’s leadership.”

Union activists are asking people who sign Riordan’s petition to sign another one that would remove their name.  

“Riordan’s trying to take pensions away from city employees and we think it’s a dumb idea,” Mims told Heather Beckner as she struggled with a bag of groceries.

Beckner seemed confused. She had not heard about Riordan’s plan, or pension reform. One  man, who asked not to be identified, liked the idea of cutting city workers’ pensions. A second man angrily denounced Riordan as a “union buster.”

Back at city hall, Riordan said his proposal is about saving the city, which faces a $215 million deficit next year.

“I love Los Angeles. I came here over 50 years ago,” he said. “I hate to see it become just like a third world country. And that’s where we’re headed.”

The multimillionaire businessman and former mayor said he’s prepared to run a vigorous campaign to convince voters to approve his plan.

City labor unions representing police officers, firefighters, and city workers of all stripes hope voters never see Riordan's plan on the ballot. Union leaders argue the city already has increased their pension contributions to 11 percent – the highest in the state – and raised the retirement age to 65.  They also said Riordan is exaggerating the city’s financial problems. 

For Ron Haywood, a traffic enforcement officer for the city, the battle in L.A. will be a bellwether.
“It’s not going to stop here at the city,” he said as he prepared to miss the big USC-UCLA football game to stand outside grocery stores and campaign against Riordan.

“Next they’re going to go with the county and then the state and it's just going to keep going,” Haywood said.

Under the city charter, Riordan needs to collect about 260,000 signatures by December 7 to qualify his measure for the May ballot.