Committee will review city's pension obligations

The Costa Mesa City Council approved the creation of a committee earlier this week tasked with overseeing the city's looming pension obligations.

The unanimous decision, with Councilwoman Wendy Leece absent, came not without its doubts, however, on a topic that has become central within the city's political dialogue in recent years.

The Pension Oversight Committee, suggested by Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger — whose campaign last November included pension reform — will have nine at-large commissioners who will publicly discuss the city's unfunded pension and medical liabilities. They would reveal their findings twice a year.

"There are lot of people out there who understand this stuff, who have worked it in the past and are able to communicate effectively what the issues are," Mensinger said during Tuesday night's council meeting. "I think it only helps in terms of transparency."

Mensinger had sought 12 members for the committee, including three from the employee associations, though city CEO Tom Hatch advised against including the employees. The council ultimately sided with Hatch's recommendation.

Based on state labor law, Hatch said there are inherent risks in having employees be involved in the committee's discussion scope.

He estimated the committee needing paid part-time help, as well as city staff time to compose agendas and reports, with an annual cost of $20,000 — an amount Righeimer called "noise" within the scope of the millions in pension liabilities.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis, expressed concerns about stretching city staff's time too thin and the extent of the committee's purpose compared to what's already being done by others.

"Our unfunded pension obligation, it's not like they're gonna sit around and figure out what it is … we already know what the range is," Genis said, later adding that she "didn't want a whine festival, that meets periodically and whines."

No committee can "change what our obligation is," Genis said. "That's up to us to change what the obligation is and figure out how to pay it off."

Mensinger replied that the committee would be more about discussion and collaboration on ideas, like other city committees.

Before the decision was reached, Jamie Newton, senior labor relations representative with the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents some of Costa Mesa's nonpublic safety workers, said with or without employees being the committee, the goal is "continued collaboration with open and honest communication."

Righeimer said he liked the original notion of including employee representatives.

"If we can't we can't, but I think it's very important to have them in the room so that we're talking to each other," he said. "We need to do that."

The oversight group will make the public aware "how big of a mess this is," Righeimer said, adding that the liability number is "mind-blowing. I have no clue — no clue — how this city is ever going to pay off the amount."

The council is scheduled to conduct a study session at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chambers with Joe Nation, a pension expert and public policy professor at Stanford University.

Twitter: @bradleyzint

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