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You might remember recently I wondered why in the world the county’s pension board would bizarrely open up a discussion about the alleged conflicts of interest of one of its members. After all, the majority of the board is conflicted and it’s never bothered them before.

Seems I’m not alone. County Counsel John Sansone produced a legal opinion reaffirming his stance that Supervisor Dianne Jacob should be allowed to participate in the retirement system’s discussions about whether to end the practice of paying defined health care benefits to retired county employees.

He was refuting the retirement system’s chief counsel, Regina Petty, who had advised the board that Jacob was conflicted. This shouldn’t be hard to do. After all, Jacob has a screaming conflict of interest sitting on that board. But the constitution of the board has chosen to ignore that.

The choice is simple: If the county pension board wants to crack down on conflicts of interest, it’d have to go the whole way. The board, as it’s currently set up, is loaded with conflicts of interest. On this very issue, in fact, six of the nine members of the board will vote on maintaining or getting rid of benefits that they may collect themselves.

Petty had the unenviable challenge of avoiding that discussion while still trying to argue that one of the board members — Jacob — had a particularly intolerable conflict of interest. When you’re forced to dance like that, you are going to produce some pretty weak stuff. And that’s exactly what Petty conjured up.

Sansone’s not really dancing. He decided to throw this point in one of the footnotes of his latest missive.

We note that at present, in addition to a County Supervisor, there are four Retirement Board members who are active members of the retirement system and one retired member. All of these members could be perceived to have conflicts of interest. Although the Political Reform Act does not regard their interest in their salary and pension as income, §§ 82030(b)(2); 82030(b)(11), adoption of the Chief Counsel’s rather vague standard of “perception of impropriety” would lead logically to the conclusion that these five members are also disqualified from voting on matters related to the Resolution, or for that matter on anything involving the retiree health care benefit program.

I talked to Jacob the other day about this legal dust up. Her opinion of Petty’s latest legal work for the retirement board isn’t all that high. But I wanted to ask her about a point worth keeping in mind. The retirement system’s lawyer has spoken. Regardless of the weaknesses of her argument, isn’t it going to be pretty difficult for members of the retirement system’s board of directors to ignore or disregard?

“I understand the dilemma, but after reading the two opinions, I think it’s pretty clear,” Jacob said. “In Regina Petty’s opinion she says there’s no legal authority that squarely addresses our situation. Then she says, but ‘in my judgment,’ this is how it is. It will be up to each board member whether her opinion has the weight of the law behind it or whether the one from John Sansone does.”

I still say there’s a third option: the board could recognize the folly of allowing any county employee to vote on their own benefit levels and demand that all of them recuse themselves from this discussion. But that’s just crazy talk I guess.

  • P.S. While I had Jacob on the phone, I asked her what she thought about the state’s move to hold three elections in 2008. She wasn’t too enthused:

“Three elections in nine months is ridiculous. There’s no guarantee that the state is ever going to pay us back the $12 million it will cost to hold the extra election. If they want to move the presidential primary to February, they should do it but move all the primaries to February as well and save us the extra cost and hassle of another election.”

SCOTT LEWIS

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