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L.A. mayoral candidates debate Riordan pension overhaul plan

Three out of four leading hopefuls speak against the bid to offer 401(k)-type benefits for newly hired city employees.

November 15, 2012|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Mayor Richard Riordan in March 2011. Los Angeles mayoral candidates recently debated Riordan's plan for cutting city pensions.
Former Mayor Richard Riordan in March 2011. Los Angeles mayoral candidates… (Bret Hartman / Los Angeles…)

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's plan for cutting city pension costs took center stage at Wednesday's mayoral forum in Koreatown, with three of the four leading candidates in the March 5 election speaking against it during or after the event.

Former federal prosecutor Kevin James was the only candidate at the forum, sponsored by the nonprofit Korean American Coalition, to speak in favor of Riordan's plan, which would move newly hired city employees into 401(k)-style plans, not government pensions.

City Councilman Eric Garcetti opposed Riordan's plan, saying it would not produce any savings for 15 years. He also warned that the proposal would make it harder for city officials to cover the retirement costs of existing employees, who would continue to be eligible for pensions even as new hires move into 401(k)s.

"In simple terms, [Riordan's plan] costs us more," he told the audience, which was gathered in a movie theater at the MaDang shopping center on Western Avenue.

Alex Rubalcava, an advisor to Riordan, disputed that assessment, saying afterward that the proposed May ballot measure would "save more than anything the city has done to date cumulatively" on pension costs.

City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Councilwoman Jan Perry were not as clear on the topic as Garcetti during the debate. But once the forum ended, neither gave support to Riordan's plan.

Perry said she would not sign a petition to get Riordan's measure on the ballot if approached by one of his signature gatherers at a supermarket. "I think converting from pensions to a 401(k) is a highly risky proposition that could back money out of the general fund," the budget that pays for basic services, she said.

Greuel told the audience that the city should focus on the practice of "double dipping," or giving an employee a pension from one city job while paying him or her a salary for another. And after the debate ended, she said she remains concerned about the legality of Riordan's proposal — particularly a provision to reduce the retirement benefits of existing city workers — and its effect on police officers.

"I have concerns about it being ... sustainable in the city of L.A.," she added. "So today it would not be something I would support."

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