By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Assemblyman Michael Allen’s selection to a high-profile state committee that will address a crisis with public employee pensions is drawing concern given the Santa Rosa Democrat’s long history of advocating on behalf of unions that support those employees.
“Who’s guarding the henhouse?” said Bob Andrews, the former owner of a benefits consulting firm who this year served on the city of Santa Rosa’s Pension Reform Task Force.
Allen, who is the former general manager of the Service Employees International Union Local 707 and executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, was heavily backed by labor in his bid for state office.
However, he insisted this week that he can stake out positions that are not union-friendly.
“Absolutely,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re trying to do what’s best for everyone. I wasn’t just elected by union members. I was elected by the public at large and I recognize that.”
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, selected Allen to serve on a joint legislative committee that according to a press release is tasked with “examining the current public pensions systems, the efficacy of recent reforms, and options going forward to help bring fiscal stability to the systems in a way that’s fair to both workers and the citizens of California.”
The committee, which includes four Democrats and two Republicans, is tilted toward Southern California interests. The committee has two Northern California representatives, both of whom are Democrats: Allen and Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.
The committee will hold three public hearings, with the first set for Oct. 26 in Carson.
Allen said he has expertise in pension and labor issues and believes that is why he was selected. He said his goal for the committee is to identify pension changes that “not only work for the public, but also for employees.”
Asked for examples of what he would support, Allen cited a cap on pensions, a need to identify how much compensation can be devoted toward pensions and requiring employers and workers to increase contributions.
He said a bill that he introduced in the most recent legislative session that would have prohibited employers from taking so-called pension holidays was held in committee along with other pension-related legislation.
Allen said Gov. Jerry Brown, who will provide input to the pension committee, requested the hold because Brown favors a comprehensive approach to the pension problem.
“I think he wants to make sure we’re not trimming around the edges,” Allen said.
Critics of Allen’s appointment say they fear the committee’s work will not lead to bold action.
In 2002, Allen was among labor leaders who lobbied the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to approve a more generous set of pension benefits for all current workers. The change, combined with salary increases and combined with other workforce trends, now is seen as driving the upward spiral in pension costs.
“If there is a problem with qualified retirement plans for public employees, would you expect him (Allen) to have a neutral stance, or a stance that we should preserve as much as possible for employees?” Andrews said.
Guerneville resident and county planning commissioner Tom Lynch said he’s concerned that Allen, 64, won’t represent the interests of younger Californians who Lynch said will bear the brunt of the pension crisis.
“He’s not representing the interests of the generation of cops, firefighters and students who will have these massive unfunded pension obligations,” Lynch said.
At a speech in Beverly Hills on Friday, Brown said that he will propose pension changes requiring a constitutional amendment and a public vote. The governor did not elaborate.