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Pension suit led to firing, official says

O.C. pension board veteran says the supervisors who sacked him are playing politics over the issue.

June 25, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Tensions between the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the panel that manages the county's pensions spilled into public view Tuesday, when a longtime pension board member who was abruptly replaced accused supervisors of political meddling.

The dust-up comes in the middle of a legal fight between supervisors and the pension board over the county's effort to slash retirement payments to sheriff's deputies.

In January, supervisors unanimously voted to sue the Orange County Public Employee Retirement System, alleging that a retroactive spike in deputies' retirement pay -- which was agreed to as part of the union's 2001 labor contract -- was illegal and created a $187-million shortfall in the retirement fund.

Overall, the county's pension fund is estimated to have $2.3 billion less than it needs to pay for benefits in the coming decades.

Union leaders suspected that the county named the pension board as a defendant because it expected little resistance. Instead, the retirement system, which has a legal obligation to defend employee benefits, has fought the case aggressively and has won the early rounds in court, including getting the case moved out of Orange County to more neutral ground in Los Angeles.

Thomas Lightvoet, the outgoing pension board member who served for 18 years, said Board of Supervisors Chairman John M.W. Moorlach, whom Lightvoet accused of forcing his removal, had "expressed consternation" that the pension system was fighting the case.

During the supervisors' meeting Tuesday, Lightvoet read a letter signed by six members of the pension board saying they feared his removal was "politically motivated," and noted the state Legislature has said that pension boards "must be free from political meddling and intimidation."

In a brittle exchange, Moorlach cut Lightvoet off after his allotted time had elapsed, preventing him from reading the full text of the letter. "I just want to thank you for your 18 years of service," he said.

Lightvoet retorted: "Interesting way to dismiss me." Moorlach then told Lightvoet: "It is an appointment, not an entitlement."

Pension board Chairman Reed Royalty also spoke in support of Lightvoet. Of the four supervisors present Tuesday, only one, Janet Nguyen, expressed concern about the appointment process, saying she wanted to be more involved in such decisions in the future "to make sure the motivation behind this is the qualifications of the individual rather than the political."

Lightvoet's removal from the board is unusual because he had just begun a new term. His previous term lapsed at the end of 2007 and the board made no effort to remove him then.

Four of the pension board's 10 members are appointed by supervisors and serve two-year terms.

Once their terms expire, they can be replaced, renominated or simply allowed to continue serving in the position until the supervisors appoint someone new.

That was the case with Lightvoet and two other board members, Royalty and George Jeffries, appointed by supervisors.

The supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to replace him with Patti Gorczyca, a former county employee for 19 years who served on the staffs of two current supervisors and in the county executive office.

Gorczyca has a long history of experience in public finance. She said in an interview Tuesday that she was not asked about her position on public pensions before being offered the appointment. She declined to comment on the charged atmosphere she is stepping into.

In the budget adopted Tuesday for the coming year, the county set aside $2.75 million to pay for legal battles, including the pension litigation. As of the last public accounting produced at the end of November, the county had already spent more than $500,000 on the case.

Wayne Quint, the president of the Assn. of Orange County Sheriff's Deputies, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., said the board's removal of Lightvoet smacked of politicizing the pension system, and said the supervisors' strategy in the pension case amounted to "looking for the path of least resistance, which they thought was going to be the retirement board. Clearly, removing people who didn't go along with that strategy speaks volumes."

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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