Marty: Government, managers, unions should shape up

Marty Richman

If the government agencies and public employee unions really want to earn the respect of the people they serve and the honest workers among them, they should support legislation that severely punishes malfeasance and other abuses of trust and laws by employees at all levels by withholding the publicly funded portion of their pensions.
The overwhelming majorities of management and public union employees are honest and hard-working people. They do a good job, but just like every large group, they have their share of outright criminals, cheats and slackers. Those who break the public trust should not retain any portion of the retirement benefits paid for with the public’s dime. They should be allowed to retain the portion that they paid for themselves, and that’s all. Failing to demand this legislation does a disservice to the public and to the honest employees by funding retirement benefits for those who do not deserve them. Merely getting a certificate of attendance should not be sufficient; your service has to be honorable.
This applies to all levels from the top executives down to those on the bottom rungs of the ladder. One cannot expect those at the bottom to support a get-tough policy if those at the top are allowed to walk away with lucrative retirements while under a dark cloud. This is a top-to-bottom, coast-to-coast problem.
In California, Ron Nichols, the manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, was allowed to resign in spite of the fact that he “has been unable to produce records showing how two nonprofit trusts created to help improve relations with the utility’s largest union have spent more than $40 million in ratepayer money over the last decade,” according to the L.A. Times. At the same time, it was reported that the union president representing most DWP employees threatened to sue anyone who revealed how the money was spent. Nichols should have been told, you can’t resign because you are fired. Additionally, the law should support a pension forfeiture process.
This week more than 100 ex-New York police officers, firefighters and jail guards were indicted accused of running a multimillion-dollar disability fraud. If they are found guilty, it will be doubly tragic because several of them were alleged to have claimed to be traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors say that contrary to their claims of severe physical disabilities and psychological problems so grave that they could not leave the house, their online postings show them on jet skis, fishing trips, at street carnivals and the like. If they are found guilty, should they keep their retirement pay?
The history of stories like these is that the managers or unions either openly or surreptitiously rush to the defense of their current or former members without doing any independent evaluation of the facts. Let’s hope that this time they at least do some investigation of their own prior to entering the fray. Yelling, “We’ve got your back no matter what,” can be just a stab in the back to the millions of honest and dedicated public employees and, especially in this case, those with actual disabilities.
Clear direction and peer pressure are two of the most effective ways of establishing standards of conduct in any organization. It’s time for government agencies and unions to stand up for the good guys and clean house from within. Putting more pensions at risk for those who betray the public trust is appropriate. Working together and demanding reform will get the legislature’s immediate attention – don’t let the worst among you set the agenda.

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