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Statement: “You have to understand, Diann’s testimony took place at a public hearing on the problems with the pension system. The city manager was proposing certain solutions that really weren’t that great. But it was at a public hearing. This was not hidden at all,” former Mayor Dick Murphy, said in an interview on KPBS radio on Oct. 5.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

Analysis: More than six years after resigning as mayor, Dick Murphy has returned to the public eye with a new book. He says he wants tell his story, make sure history is accurate and lay out his vision for a better San Diego.

The city’s pension scandal and questions about the legitimacy of his re-election forced Murphy from office in 2005 just months into his second term.

In an interview with KPBS’ Maureen Cavanaugh, Murphy accurately stated that the pension problems had begun under previous administrations, but he took responsibility for a share of the crisis.

Cavanaugh pointed out that pension whistleblower Diann Shipione’s name didn’t appear anywhere in his book. She noted that Shipione is credited with bringing the issue to public awareness and then asked Murphy why he didn’t want to make the pension issue public.

Here’s the exchange:

MURPHY: Well, it really was made public. You have to understand, Diann’s testimony took place at a public hearing on the problems with the pension system. The city manager was proposing certain solutions that really weren’t that great. But it was at a public hearing. This was not hidden at all. In fact, I think some of us feel like we were unduly criticized over the pension system because we made it so public. We had all these public hearings, and what she criticized was the solution the city manager was suggesting, not that there was — she didn’t identify the problem. She was criticizing the solution.

CAVANAUGH: She was criticizing fact that it was going to be passed on down the road even farther.

MURPHY: She was. She said that she criticized this because — what happened is there had been this under funding since ’96, the city manager was saying, okay, let’s increase the contribution, but see, it didn’t totally fund the system. It was an increase, and it was still under funding and she criticized that. And she was correct. But it was certainly not being hidden.

The former mayor’s response gave the impression that city leaders had been out in front of publicizing the pension problems and Shipione simply came in to criticize their reaction to the problems. That would imply that Shipione wasn’t much of a whistleblower at all, simply a critic.

His statement is not accurate. Shipione’s comments did not come at a public hearing on the problems in the pension system, as Murphy asserts, and she wasn’t criticizing the solution.

She first aired her concerns to the mayor and City Council during a Nov. 18, 2002 City Council meeting that was largely dedicated to passing a major overhaul to the city’s library system, including the construction of a new downtown library.

I was there. There was no scheduled conversation on the pension problems. Instead, one half of the now-infamous two-part deal had been stashed away on the consent agenda, which is a laundry list of mundane housekeeping items bundled together and voted on all at once without public discussion for efficiency’s sake.

The items, which granted employees enhanced benefits, wouldn’t have been discussed publicly had Shipione not asked that they be pulled from the consent agenda so she could comment on them. Contrary to Murphy’s claims, she didn’t criticize any solution for the pension system as not going far enough.

A trustee of the city employee’s pension system, Shipione warned the council members that the agreement created serious long-term financial troubles. She had a second warning too: “I’ll be quite frank with you, it almost appears to be corrupt in my opinion.”

The pension system’s board, largely dominated by organized labor and city management representatives, had agreed to allow the city to forgo a sizable payment into the fund contingent on retroactive pension boosts for employees.

The benefits being voted on by the council were in no way presented as a fix to the pension system nor were they. The agreement was a way for the financially struggling city to put off paying a big bill. It did the opposite of resolve problems — it deepened them by starving the fund of cash while making it responsible for larger employee pensions. San Diego continues to suffer from deep financial problems as a result of a string of its pension decisions, among other factors.

Shipione’s public comments that day and in the following months drew critical attention to the city’s pension problems and stern blowback from pension and city officials.

Following Shipione’s warning, Councilwoman Donna Frye was the lone dissenter in an 8-1 vote on the benefit increase. (Here’s the video of the meeting. The pension discussion starts around the 26-minute mark.)

As he’s spoken about his new book, Murphy has conceded that the decision to approve the deal was a mistake.

We’ve labeled Murphy’s comments as Huckster Propaganda. A lot of time has passed and it’s difficult to blame Murphy for wanting to put that past behind him but it is reasonable to expect he’d know the details. The moment was a turning point for his administration, has been recounted time and time again in political lore, and the messenger, Shipione, wasn’t a stranger to Murphy. He’d officiated Shipione’s marriage to lawyer Pat Shea. He also presided over the City Council meeting, as mayors did before the city switched to a strong-mayor form of government, and voted on the benefit increase.

The former mayor made the statement during a book tour whose stated goal was an accurate recounting of the past and, in minimizing the content and context of Shipione’s warnings, made his administration out in a rosier light.

When I contacted Murphy about this Fact Check, he stood by his comments.

“While these events occurred almost a decade ago, my recollection is that Diane’s comments were made at a San Diego City Council meeting open to the public at which the City Manager’s pension recommendations were on the agenda for anyone to discuss,” he said in an email.

I’m the editor of VOSD. You can reach me at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

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