Sonoma County pension board pick draws criticism

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday appointed a leader in the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association to the board that runs the county public pension system, despite complaints from labor groups that his organization is hostile to union interests.

"I don't think we should start down that road of picking and choosing what affiliated organizations one should belong to before being assigned to a particular committee, board, or commission," Chairman David Rabbitt said before the vote confirming retired Chevron executive Bob Williamson to the pension board. "I think that is a dangerous place to go."

Williamson, a Mark West area resident, worked for more than 30 years for Chevron, including five years running that company's retirement plan, among other senior financial positions. Rabbitt and other supervisors said he had unusual expertise to bring to the nine-member board of the Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association.

Labor leaders, however, said they were disturbed by the fact that Williamson has publicly criticized the size of public pension payments and is a board member for the Taxpayers Association, which has accused unions of deliberately running up pension benefits at the expense of other government services.

"Somebody who's got that strong a point of view, can he just set that aside and participate and not have it have an impact?" said Bill Robotka, a retired county worker and a union representative for about 235 current employees who belong to the Engineers and Scientists of California, Local 20.

Robotka asked the supervisors to probe Williamson's positions and background more thoroughly. He also criticized Williamson for not explicitly including his membership in the Taxpayers Association on his application for the vacant position on the SCERA board.

Williamson conceded that he has been critical of the cost of public employee pensions, but he said that is irrelevant to the mission of the SCERA board, which is a technical oversight panel, guiding investments, administration, and planning for the pension system.

"It really has nothing to do with policy, the benefit policy, which is established by the (supervisors)," he said. "The job of SCERA is to take whatever is given to us and ensure that the assets are well managed with respect to the balance of risk and return, that the actuarial (projections) are accurate, that the actual benefits are paid and managed in an efficient fashion."

As for disclosing his Taxpayers Association membership, he said, "I just didn't put it on there because it is not important," though he pointed out that he did include association President Jack Atkin as a reference, so the connection was not a secret.

As a SCERA board member, "my job is make sure it is run well, run safely and the money is well cared for," he said, "and I think I can do that irrespective of my thoughts on the level of pension benefits that are out there. Those are two separate issues, in my view."

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