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Tim Smith knows his campaign to unseat 3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane is a long shot.

He got into the race late. He doesn't have much money or major endorsements. And his track record isn't great — he was one of the candidates Zane beat out for the seat in 2008.

Despite these challenges, Smith hopes his modest campaign and will fuel further public debate about whether Sonoma County is doing enough to control its ballooning pension costs.

The county's pension system is "out of control" and the changes proposed by the current board are "cosmetic" ones that don't come close to the kind of sweeping overhaul needed avoid a dire fate, Smith said.

"We are on the track of Stockton, Vallejo and potentially, if we don't do anything, we're looking at Greece," Smith said. "Eventually you have to say STOP!"

Whether what is essentially a one-issue campaign will give Smith enough political horsepower to overcome a well-positioned incumbent is a key question in the race for the Sonoma County's central supervisorial district.

Political observers doubt it. They say Zane may be slightly vulnerable on the politically charged issue of public pensions, but it will be difficult for Smith to win the June 5 primary without a well-funded campaign to drive that point home to voters.

"This is a real uphill battle for him," said David McCuan, an associate professor of political science at Sonoma State University.

That's partly because Zane has taken a leadership role in the board's effort to tackle the pension problem, co-authoring last year's report on the subject.

Zane has been dismissive of Smith's candidacy, lamenting it as a "diversion" that will keep her from her job. She labeled his promise not to accept a pension himself if elected a "cheap campaign trick" and questioned the self-employed attorney's claim to be a "small business owner."

"He doesn't have a job. Give me a break!" Zane said recently.

In many ways the 3rd District is home to the year's least compelling supervisorial race. Far more money, energy and attention are being expended on the primary contests for the two other board seats up for grabs in November. The 1st District race is a six-way contest to replace long-time Sonoma Valley Supervisor Valerie Brown, while in the West County's 5th District, Supervisor Efren Carrillo is facing a surprise challenge from former Supervisor Ernie Carpenter.

The demographics of the compact 3rd District give a decided home field advantage to Zane, 52. Sixty percent of the district is made up of voters from her base in Santa Rosa, while 34 percent live in Rohnert Park. The balance, 6 percent, reside in unincorporated areas.

Zane also has endorsements from across the political spectrum, including labor, environmental and business groups. In February, she reported $50,000 in contributions. For months it appeared no one would step forward to challenge her for the seat.

When no one did, Smith said he felt compelled to do so. He launched his campaign Feb. 29, loaned himself $3,000 and said he hoped to give voters a choice they wouldn't otherwise have.

"I think democracy deserves debate," he said at the time.

Zane said the campaign gives her an excellent opportunity to discuss her record in her first term on the board.

She said she is proud of the smoking ban the board adopted covering county buildings, parks and multi-family housing units. She also cites creation of the mobile mental-health crisis unit that provides law enforcement officers with access to mental health professionals during emergencies. The move was in response to the 2007 death of Jeremiah Chass, 17, whom deputies shot and killed in a confrontation after his parents called 911 to report he was having a psychotic episode.

Zane also claims she helped create "$400 million worth of jobs." The figure is an estimate of the value of four projects the board has advanced during her tenure: The SMART train, expansion of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, construction of a new Sutter Hospital and a new state courthouse, now delayed by a year.

She said that as board chairwoman she's tried to be a "consensus builder" and to keep the board working well together.

"I think I'm really good at bringing people together and listening and respecting their views," Zane said.

When it comes to her opponent, however, she doesn't have much respect for his pension platform, which she says amounts to a "hare-brained idea of taking the unions to court."

"He really doesn't have any ideas, essentially, if that is his only strategy," Zane said.

The county's pension costs, including payments, are $87 million this year, up more than 300 percent since 2000, and are expected to double within the next decade if not changed.

Zane said she believes Smith would try to impose pension benefit cuts on existing workers, a strategy that "20 county attorneys and a county administrator" have said would face an expensive legal challenge.

Instead, the board's strategy is to negotiate lower benefit formulas for new workers, cut pension debt, seek pension flexibility at the state level and eliminate pension spiking.

"We've had outrageous pension spiking in this county. It's got to go," Zane said. "You shouldn't be able to make more money in your retirement than you made when you were working."

<NO1>A good example<NO><NO1>, Zane agreed<NO><NO1>, <NO><NO1>is former county auditor-controller Rod Dole, who retired in 2011 and is now receiving the county's top pension of $254,625 a year. Dole added $44,140 <NO><NO1>to his final year's salary by cashing in accumulated administrative leave, nearly $20,000 of which was included in his pension calculation.<NO><NO1>

<NO><NO1>Former supervisors Paul Kelley and Mike Kerns, who left the Board of Supervisors last year, each added $12,850 to their <NO><NO1>final year's pay used to calculate their pension<NO><NO1> benefits .

Zane said she has "no idea" if her former board colleagues and other officials engaged in pension spiking, but wouldn't doubt it.

"I believe that everyone from top down has taken advantage of the pension perks, I think they are unacceptable," Zane said.

<NO>Smith counters that Zane is misrepresenting his pension proposal. He would negotiate with unions and thinks the best way to do so is to lead by example. The supervisors and top county elected officials and non-unionized managers should immediately reduce their own pensions from the formula known as 3-at-60, or 3 percent of the highest annual salary for every year of service after age 60, to the lower — but in Smith's view still generous — formula of 2 at 60. Once they do that, the unions will know they are serious, he said.

He said his pledge not to accept a pension if elected is "not a stunt." He said one of the reasons the pension system in trouble is because county leaders, including supervisors, have historically had a self-interest in approving more generous pension benefits.

"It's a corrupt system. It's not illegal, but it's corrupt," Smith said.

But change is under way, Zane said. The board has made it clear that top officials must lead the way by accepting concessions themselves, she said.

"There's got to be shared sacrifice and it's got to start at the top," Zane said.

How significant those will be remains to be seen. Negotiations with various union groups are under way, and Zane said she expects unrepresenyted employees — the 600 or so executives, managers and confidential staff not represented by unions — to accept concessions comparable to those requested of union members.

If there's any misrepresentation going on in the campaign, it's by Smith, Zane said.

In his ballot statement under occupation, Smith listed "small business owner" and "educator." Zane questioned both, characterizing him as an unemployed insurance attorney.

"I think you shouldn't misrepresent yourself to the public. If you are an insurance attorney, you should say that on the ballot statement," Zane said.

She said he hasn't taught since 2008.

Smith, 57, spent most of his career as an insurance attorney, working for Fireman's Fund and the senior insurance arm of GE Capital. Since leaving a local firm last March, Smith remains a licensed attorney but is now a sole practitioner specializing on estate and business planning, he said.

<NO1><NO>He said his ballot statement is accurate and he chose to refer to himself as a small business owner instead of an attorney to avoid the negative impressions voters sometimes associate with attorneys.

He remains an adjunct professor teaching business law at Sonoma State University and the University of San Francisco but said it has been "a couple years" since he's taught courses.

Smith said he's happy to go "head-to-head on resumes with Zane but believes her criticism reveals an underlying insecurity.

"Perhaps she views me as a real threat to her re-election," Smith said.

Not likely, McCuan said.

Smith's candidacy isn't really about winning, it's more of a protest aimed at pushing Zane to take the pension issue more seriously, he said.

"I don't think she's going to be spending many sleepless nights," McCuan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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