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Perry reverses herself on employee pension issue

At a debate, Councilwoman Jan Perry says new city employees should be moved away from guaranteed-benefit retirement plans. In a later about-face, she says she misunderstood the moderator's question.

January 22, 2013|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Jan Perry is known as fiscally hawkish.
Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Jan Perry is known as fiscally hawkish. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

City Councilwoman Jan Perry has cultivated a reputation during the campaign for mayor of Los Angeles for talking tougher on budget reform than the other city officials — Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel — running for City Hall's top job.

Perry appeared to intensify that fiscally hawkish stance last week when asked if new city employees should be moved away from guaranteed-benefit pensions that current workers enjoy. She answered "yes."

In a campaign in which employee unions will wield considerable clout, it seemed like a watershed moment. It turns out, though, that Perry didn't really mean it. She now says she misunderstood the question.

The almost-telling moment, and subsequent retraction, emerged from last week's debate in front of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. During a "lightning round" of short questions near the end of the debate, the moderator asked candidates: "Should the city retirement plans for new employees be changed from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution plan?"

City workers have been loath to give up a system that guarantees them a certain amount of pay in retirement. Defined-contribution plans only promise a set investment from employer and employee — similar to a 401(k) — with the eventual level of retirement pay not locked in.

Garcetti and Greuel, who have received strong support in the past from employee unions, both answered "no." Kevin James, a Republican attorney, told the homeowners group he would support such a shift. Perry joined him with a "yes" answer. And the debate moved on.

Contacted later about what seemed like her new stance, Perry's camp said her answer was not what it appeared.

Spokeswoman Helen Sanchez said Perry thought the question pertained to capping healthcare benefits for city employees. "She supports a cap on benefits and anything additional beyond that employees must contribute," Sanchez said.

Reminded that the debate question pertained to pensions, not health benefits, Sanchez checked back with the candidate. "She does not support that," Sanchez said of shifting future employees away from a guaranteed retirement payout. "What she does support is a higher age of retirement for new employees and a higher contribution toward their pension."

Told of the change, Greuel's campaign consultant accused Perry of pandering and inconsistency.

"I guess political candidates can ask for a do-over or get a mulligan," said Greuel consultant John Shallman. "The problem is mayors, in times of crisis, don't get to have that opportunity. They've got to make decisions and sometimes critically important decisions, in which you don't get a do-over."

Richard Close, longtime president of the Sherman Oaks homeowners group, took a more forgiving view of Perry's position on city pensions. He said her answer to that question made less of an impression on him than the more than 20 years he had watched her operate as a city employee.

"I was initially surprised she would make that statement, because the unions are so opposed to changing the method of computations for pensions," Close said. Despite her later shift, Close said: "I still view her as the most fiscally conservative person of the three elected officials who are running. She is the person who would best deal with the budget crisis in the city."

Close emphasized that he has not yet chosen a candidate in the mayor's race and that the homeowners association does not endorse candidates.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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