Did Sonoma County supervisors break the law in the way they boosted retirement benefits for themselves and other employees 10 years ago?
The county grand jury posed that question earlier this year, and the county issued its formal response last week. As I read through it, I was reminded of former President Bill Clinton's famous parsing of words: "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is."
If you've forgotten, this was Clinton's rationalization to the grand jury about why he wasn't lying when he said "there's nothing going on between us" in reference to one Monica Lewinsky.
His definition of "is," as he explained, was that there was not something going on at that moment. The implication is — or was — that if the question had used a "was" instead of an "is" he might have answered more truthfully. But then everyone knows — certainly anyone who has had a child who has sought to debate the meaning of "clean" as in "your room" — that the discussion would then proceed to a parsing of the word "was," rather than "is."
The fact is that when one is determined to obfuscate, there's no limit to what that individual will do to fog up the windows.
In that regard, the county did a thorough fog job with its report explaining how county officials "substantially complied" with the law back in 2002 when they ratcheted up retirement benefits.
It's largely because of those increases that the county now finds itself in such hot water financially and faces having to devote a much larger piece of its revenue pie to paying for retirement benefits, making the portion of the pie devoted to fixing potholes and meeting other needs that much smaller.
"A public notice is required to be published two weeks prior to a Board of Supervisors meeting at which a pension increase is to be discussed," the civil grand jury noted. "This notice could not be found in The Press Democrat archives."
That's because it doesn't exist.
But it's worse than that. The California Employees Retirement Law of 1937 clearly states that before benefits can be increased, the Board of Supervisors "shall secure the services" of an actuary, that the actuary "shall provide a statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs" and that "the future annual costs as determined by the actuary shall be made public at a public meeting."
None of that happened — not in any way that meets the letter or the spirit of the law. The county sort of acknowledges as much in its response to the grand jury. But it's hard to find it in the lengthy — nearly 40 pages in all — analysis and word-parsing.
County staff first writhes over the word "secure," arguing that the law is "silent" on what it means to " 'secure' the services of an actuary." (That's because the county didn't do it. It relied on a series of less-than-thorough letters from an actuary to the Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association, which is a separate entity.)
The staff dodges and fades over whether the law is ultimately "mandatory" or just "directory," meaning that the outcome is still irrevocable even though the county mishandled it. (The county ultimately argues that it did nothing wrong but adopted a number of changes to procedures to make sure it doesn't do it again.)