Vernon's top city attorneys, already among the highest-paid public employees in the state, have received an unusual pension deal under which they would get the same enhanced benefits as police officers and firefighters.
Typically, the people who receive the higher pensions given to "safety employees" are workers whose jobs put them in harm's way. Attorneys in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, who prosecute major crimes, receive no such pensions. It is rare for city attorneys to get such a benefit, pension experts said.
Among the beneficiaries is Eric T. Fresch, Vernon's former city administrator and city attorney, who was paid $1.65 million by the well-heeled industrial city in 2008 (although only about $340,000 of that sum was counted toward retirement benefits). Fresch now works for Vernon as a $525-an-hour legal consultant.
His classification as a safety employee could raise his annual retirement payout by about 11%, said Marcia Fritz, a pension expert who reviewed Vernon's retirement formulas.
A Vernon official said Fresch was unavailable for comment.
FOR THE RECORD:
City attorney pensions: An article in some editions of Thursday's Section A about special pension benefits for city attorneys in Vernon misspelled the last name of Hyatt Seligman, president of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, as Seligson. —
Both the Vernon City Council and CalPERS, the state's public employee pension fund, approved the unusual pension arrangement in 2004, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
Disclosure of the attorneys' generous pensions comes amid growing scrutiny of retirement benefits for highly paid city officials, such as former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo. Rizzo's contract with the small, working-class city called for him to receive more than $1.5 million in annual compensation. Even after he stepped down, experts told The Times he would probably receive $600,000 a year in retirement pay.
Vernon's pension arrangement covers the positions of city attorney, deputy city attorney and assistant city attorney.
After The Times inquired about the pensions, city officials said they planned to investigate the matter.
In seeking to justify the changes, Vernon officials cited a government code section that allows "local prosecutors" to receive the enhanced benefits. But there is no indication that any of Vernon's city attorneys worked primarily as prosecutors — as required by the government code that spells out CalPERS "safety member" eligibility.
Former Vernon Police Chief Sol Benudiz told The Times he could not recall a single instance when Vernon's city attorneys appeared in criminal court. He said those cases were always handled by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
In L.A. County, the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys for years has tried in vain to gain the "public safety" classification for its members, said Hyatt Seligman, the group's current president.
"That has been a highly sought after goal for all deputy district attorneys, I would say, for at least 10 or 20 years," said Seligman, a county prosecutor for more than three decades.
Seligman said he knew of no county prosecutors in California who are classified as public safety employees, much less city attorneys who mostly handle civil litigation and minor criminal cases.
"Our argument for trying to get it has been that, traditionally, deputy district attorneys have faced actual threats both in and out of the courts," he said. "I don't know why a city attorney would argue that they're entitled to it."
Because of the nature of their jobs, safety employees receive more generous benefit packages and can retire at an earlier age. Specific formulas vary by agency, but in Vernon, safety employees receive a "3% at 50" formula. That means that employees can retire at age 50 and receive as an annual pension 3% of their highest yearly earnings, multiplied by their years of service.
When the attorneys were reclassified in 2004, non-safety workers in Vernon received 2% at 55. Since then, the city has boosted the rate for "miscellaneous employees" to 2.7% at 55.
CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco said there was no way to tell if any attorneys working for other cities were classified as safety employees. Generally, he said, those who receive such pensions work in dangerous jobs or "a high-stress-level job that requires a certain amount of physical fitness."
Pacheco added that Fresch and any other Vernon attorneys who earned more than $245,000 would be included in a CalPERS review launched in response to the Bell scandal.
"That review is already underway," Pacheco said. "We are taking a closer look at this individual and all others who earn over $245,000."
Vernon Interim City Administrator Mark Whitworth said in a written statement that the unusual pension benefits are under review.
"I have asked our staff to look into this issue," he said.
Whitworth noted, however, that any extra pension cost would be footed by Vernon.