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Signature gatherers duel over Riordan pension initiative

Union backers work to dissuade voters as petition workers gather signatures for an initiative to switch new city employees into 401(k)-type retirement plans.

November 17, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Linda Cryer, a 911 dispatcher for the city of Los Angeles, waves a sign and cheers outside the Service Employees International Union headquarters. Union supporters are working to disrupt former Mayor Richard Riordan's attempt to qualify a pension initiative for next year's city election.
Linda Cryer, a 911 dispatcher for the city of Los Angeles, waves a sign and… (Patrick T. Fallon, Los Angeles…)

Bonnie Haviland is the kind of voter Los Angeles city workers are hoping will help them stop former Mayor Richard Riordan's push to switch new employees into 401(k)-type retirement plans from the current taxpayer-backed pensions.

The Tarzana grandmother thinks younger generations shouldn't have to worry about a retirement tied to the ups and downs of the stock market. That's why Haviland, 72, refused Saturday to sign a petition seeking to put Riordan's pension measure before voters next May.

"I'm already retired so I don't have to worry," she said outside of a Vons supermarket, where a paid signature gatherer calling himself "Ace" had asked her to sign Riordan's petition. "But I feel sorry for those who do."

Riordan is in the midst of gathering about 265,000 signatures to qualify a pension initiative for the May mayoral election. Changes are needed because pension costs are projected to continue rising even with recent changes made to retirement benefits by the City Council, Riordan has said.

The city faces a $216-million budget shortfall next year, due in part to ever-increasing pension costs, city budget managers say. Union leaders say starting a 401(k)-like plan would cost the city even more, at least initially.

Saturday was the kickoff of organized labor's attempt to derail the former mayor and multimillionaire businessman's initiative drive. After a morning rally, about 100 city union members fanned out to 7-Elevens, supermarkets and strip malls across Los Angeles to persuade voters not to sign Riordan's petition.

"When there's trash to be picked up, who comes to your house to do it? Even on the day after Christmas?" asked Aurora Wynnz, a community activist whom everyone calls "McGee." "They don't get Social Security. And Riordan wants them all to get 401(k)s. How has that worked out for you?"

Wynnz appeared to be having great success. One person after another signed a sheet asking the city clerk to cancel out their signature for Riordan's measure just in case they had signed the petition without really knowing what it was about.

Tracy "Love" Williams was one of them. Stopped by Ace outside Vons, he signed one petition to get a medical marijuana ordinance on the ballot, and then signed a second one that Ace presented to him, he said. When Wynnz explained what the Riordan initiative would do, Williams was upset that he had signed it.

"How do I know you're not lying too?" Williams asked. After some more persuasion, he took the clipboard. "OK, I'll sign this too."

Jason Elias, a union spokesman, said overall activity was light Saturday, probably because of the wet weather.

Elias said that one of his members was pushed by a signature gatherer outside an Eagle Rock Trader Joe's and that he was spit on by the same man at another store. Union members were told not to be confrontational with the petition gatherers but to make a counter argument to voters being approached, he said.

The union didn't call the police, he said, because the man left. "We got what we wanted — he wasn't able to get any more signatures at that store."

John Schwada, a Riordan spokesman, said city workers can best protect their retirement benefits by joining the former mayor's movement. The current taxpayer-backed pension system is outdated and could bankrupt the city unless serious changes are made, he said.

"All the people of Los Angeles deserve an opportunity to vote on an issue of such great importance to the city's future," Riordan said in a statement.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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