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Tuesday, September 06, 2005 | Here’s a question: Can the San Diego City Council appoint a resident to the city’s pension board without that person’s expressed consent – sort of like drafting a reluctant citizen to serve in the pension wars?

I mean what else could it be thinking? On the council’s Tuesday docket, it has the appointments of Richard Rider and Diann Shipione to the pension board listed as item 200.

Let’s start with Rider. During a quick phone conversation last week, I asked him if he had heard from the council about his potential appointment to the beleaguered board of administration of the San Diego City Employees Retirement System. The council postponed his nomination last month and Rider has since expressed reservations about joining the board if he’s not part of a “slate of reformers.”

So, had the council gotten back to him since then?

“Nope,” he said.

He left the next day for a weeks-long vacation in Europe. He probably won’t make Tuesday’s council meeting.

So, how about Shipione? She’s the famed whistleblower, who withdrew her name from consideration for appointment last month because she also didn’t want to be part of the board unless a whole slate of reformers joined her at the same time.

Sound familiar?

The council hasn’t proposed any more names to go along with her than they did last month so why did they think Shipione would have had a change of heart?

Because, well, she didn’t.

“I recommend you leave the empty places on the Board empty, and let those currently on the Board continue on their own hostile path with the burden of their decisions still before them,” Shipione wrote in a letter to Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins.

That was last Wednesday.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the council would leave those two appointments on this week’s docket without the consent of the people being nominated. After all, anyone who’s ever had business in front of the council, or with whom the council has business of its own, are well-aware that City Hall discusses issues on its own terms. If the council is on vacation, don’t bother them. If the council is in session, you have to wait, sometimes for hours, with no guarantee your issue will even be considered.

Take, for instance, the experiences of two residents: Ezekiel Cortez and Thomas Hebrank. Atkins nominated them to the pension board. And the two sat in City Council chambers for several hours Aug. 9 waiting for officials to finally address their appointments.

Of course, at that point Councilman Jim Madaffer just left the meeting. Already short-staffed, the council found itself with only five members present. Because the council cannot get anything done without five votes, all would have to agree or nothing would happen.

Nothing happened. Cortez and Hebrank’s names are again on the docket.

But Madaffer didn’t just leave Cortez and Hebrank hanging, he also left his colleague Donna Frye carrying the heavy load on the issue of throwing pension President Peter Preovolos off the retirement system’s board.

Madaffer had called for his ouster and he refers to Preovolos facetiously in e-mails as “Peter Provolone” – which we’re assuming is a manipulation of his name to rhyme with “baloney.”

Anyway, without Madaffer, nobody would second Frye’s motion to oust Preovolos. The council did agree to continue the issue though. Continuances are popular actions these days.

And it will be interesting to see what the council does with the Preovolos issue Tuesday.

Frye still wants him gone despite movement by the retirement board this week to share documents with federal investigators. Many people are anxious to see those documents. They say examining the information is a vital part of the city’s effort to prove it has fully looked into allegations of wrongdoing with regard to its pension fund and disclosed what it found.

A success in that arena, many have said, will enable the city to reestablish its credit with Wall Street and jolt it out of this wrenching imbroglio that has paralyzed it for more than a year.

Now that the board has agreed to turn some of them over to the U.S. Attorney and the city’s audit committee, which is headed by former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, has everything happened that needed to?

“They’ve done nothing,” Frye says. “What the remaining members of the retirement board have done is comply with a court order, that’s it. They have continued to show they have no desire to be cooperative.”

Yet some are advising the council to maybe back off a little bit.

Mitch Mitchell, the vice president of public policy at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said there’s a possibility the board’s actions could indeed help speed along the publication of the city’s audited financial statements. If it does, the city could move on, he said, and Preovolos should keep his volunteer job at the board.

“There are some who believe he’s created a level of animosity that will continue to be an obstacle in the effort to solve this crisis,” Mitchell said of Preovolos. “But we’re only concerned with whether his actions will lead to the formal release of those audited financial statements.”

So what would he advise the council to do on Tuesday regarding Preovolos? Get an expert opinion.

And that brings us to another interesting thing to look for during the first council meetings after nearly a month-long break: legal opinions.

The council is still confused as to whether they authorized, or endorsed, or allowed, or are paying for City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s legal challenge to the benefits many city employees are expecting.

Aguirre says the council embraced his legal efforts.

Councilman Scott Peters has said the council authorized Aguirre to pursue his legal goals, and to use city funds, to argue his points in court but “in his name only.” Deputy Mayor Atkins has issued only one statement, saying the council has actually taken “no action” on the issue.

Our conversation with Frye offered yet one more version.

“You can split hairs about what this or that meant but the reality of it is the vote allowed the city attorney to move forward with his claims,” said Frye, whose campaign for mayor has emphasized the push to roll back the benefits she claims were illegal. Her opponent, former police Chief Jerry Sanders, has pushed for the same thing.

Representatives from the largest city employee union have said they were going to press the council to clarify the confusing issue in public as soon as the council came off its recess. Now they say they may have to wait to see what other issues might have been docketed.

Frye said that a closed session Tuesday should clarify the issue more.

Maybe it will for members of the City Council who get to attend the closed session, but it’s not clear what it will do for the residents and employees who are very interested in what the city’s elected leaders have to say about that issue.

And judging from the feedback I’ve received following the issue, there are many, many people waiting patiently for clarification.

Is that why the City Council is so determined to elucidate it behind closed doors?

Scott Lewis is a frequent contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can e-mail him at

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