SACRAMENTO — The post-election flurry of Democratic leaders naming friends to high-paying state boards and commissions is expected to continue next week with the appointment of retiring state Sen. David A. Roberti to a $97,000-a-year government job.
Roberti, forced out by term limits and defeated in a bid to prolong his political career by running for state treasurer, would become at least the fourth person with close ties to leaders in the Senate or Assembly to be given a high-salaried post since the Nov. 8 election. Roberti's state salary would nearly double.
Sources told The Times on Friday that the Senate Rules Committee, which Roberti headed for a record 14 years as senate president pro tem, will meet in a closed-door session early next week to approve his appointment to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. The board rules on appeals, usually brought by workers against employers, who say they have been unfairly denied unemployment insurance benefits.
"I anticipate it will happen," Roberti said when contacted Friday.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), whose long tenure is expected to end with the Republican takeover of the Assembly, put the post-election process in motion by handing out appointments to a girlfriend, a former law firm associate and the spouse of a retiring Democratic legislator.
While the current wave of appointments has brought the issue renewed attention, the awarding of plum jobs to ousted incumbents and their friends is viewed around the Capitol as an old practice of both Democrats and Republicans. Less clear, however, is how the patronage tradition will go over with voters who proclaimed loudly last month that they are tired of politics as usual.
Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who succeeded Roberti as president pro tem, said he supports Roberti's appointment and considers it justified. "He has had a distinguished career of public service," Lockyer said. "We'd like to capture his skills and energy."
Long service in the Legislature "should not be a barrier to continued service in appropriate positions," Lockyer said. "This is a working job, a full-time position."
However, political scientist Bruce Cain of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies said many commissions have always been treated as patronage plums and produce little valuable work for the taxpayers.
"If a retiring politician wants the job, you have to wonder whether there is a lot of work involved," Cain said. "The real question is whether we ought to have the commissions and whether they should be a full-time, salaried job."
The more important issue, Cain said, is whether the high-paying governmental commissions, originally envisioned as insulating regulators from political influence, should be re-examined and possibly abandoned.
"I've never been under the illusion that these things were anything other than political appointments," Cain said. "If they are going to be appointed by the governor and the Legislature, then we've got to accept that they are going to be appointed on political grounds."
Roberti would replace Debra E. Berg on the appeals board. She is the wife of longtime Roberti assistant Clifford Berg, the $120,000-a-year executive officer of the Senate Rules Committee, one of the highest-paid employees in state government.
Clifford Berg is expected to leave the Senate payroll soon and become a lobbyist. Sources said Lockyer will appoint a longtime member of his staff, Greg Schmidt, to replace Berg.
The Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate's Rules Committee share with the governor the authority to make appointments to several powerful and high-paying boards and commissions.
These include the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, the Integrated Waste Management Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission.
Roberti, 55, who has held a part-time teaching position at USC in recent months, is reported to have negotiated with a number of potential private employers. He is an attorney, but has spent most of his adult life in the Legislature.
Sources who asked not to be identified said a key reason that former legislators get appointments is that they usually receive a higher salary. The $52,000-a-year pay for legislators will rise to $72,000 next week. This translates into higher pension benefits when the former legislator permanently retires from the public payroll.
In the spring, Roberti narrowly beat back an expensive recall election led by pro-gun activists in his San Fernando Valley district. With his political funds virtually depleted, he was defeated in the June Democratic primary for state treasurer by Phil Angelides, who in turn lost to Republican Matt Fong.
Roberti is not the only former legislator in line for a possible appointment. State Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-Modesto), a veteran legislator who lost his reelection bid, has made inquiries about appointment to a potential vacancy on the Integrated Waste Management Board, sources said. The $95,400-a-year slot is held by Wesley Chesbro, an environmentalist and pioneer recycler.
Lockyer said he understood that McCorquodale was interested in the trash board, but added: "He hasn't talked to me directly." McCorquodale was active in the passage of California's "bottle bill" and other recycling legislation. Lockyer said he also had "heard good things about Chesbro."
Lockyer said the appointment to the trash board will be dealt with by the Rules Committee later in the month.