WatchSonoma Watch

Bob Williamson elected to pension board


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.”

Bob Williamson in 2010. (PD File)

Bob Williamson in 2010. (PD File)

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.”

The SCERA board manages about $2 billion in assets on behalf of more than 8,000 current and retired county workers. Most of the nine members on the board are county employees or elected officials, but two — Williamson and Petaluma CPA Donna Beels — have no connection to county government.

Four members of the board are appointed by county supervisors, two are elected by retirees, one is elected by law enforcement and other public safety employees, and two are elected by active civilian employees.

The county pension system has been a closely watched political issue, with supervisors trimming pension benefits in 2012 for future employees to contain taxpayer costs. The pension system’s unfunded liability — the difference between current assets and projected payments to retirees — was $527 million at the end of 2012, the last official report.

The official numbers for 2013 won’t be released until May and pension officials say they hope to see a lower unfunded liability due to improving returns on investments, though they will not predict how much it may improve.

The supervisors approved Williamson’s appointment unanimously, with Supervisor Susan Gorin absent. Several said they were sympathetic to concerns of labor, but they were satisfied that Williamson is qualified and would help administer the pension system productively.

Robotka said he was willing to give Williamson a chance to prove his impartiality, though he remained troubled after Tuesday’s vote. He complained that the voice of active union members has never been strong on the board – most of the recent members who are county workers have been management rather than current rank-and-file employees.

Even under the best of circumstances, he said, Williamson will simply perpetuate that non-union orientation.

“I expect him to be the most conservative and least retiree- and employee-oriented voice on the board,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.

11 Responses to “Bob Williamson elected to pension board”

  1. Concerned Citizen says:

    Another misconception about the County’s earned benefit package for retirees is that health care insurance is guaranteed for life. This is not a guaranteed benefit and can be taken away at any time. Retirees, like current employees pay a substantial portion of their insurance premiums and at 65 shift to Medicare for their primary insurance carrier. As we all know the cost of insurance premiums have increased over the years and that increase has been passed on to retirees.

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  2. GAJ says:

    Bear, mmmm, let’s see, I retired at 51 and not on the government dole.

    I started my IRA when I was 21 and maxed out contributions to it each and every year even when I was barely scraping by…same with the 401k which only became available in the last 10 years of my career.

    So, yeah, I have a good grip on investments including Real Estate.

    Still too young to access my IRA monies or SS, (which I never counted on), so I’m doing just fine thank you. Living well below my means was a key to much of this.

    The $250,000 per person average I cited, at a withdrawal rate of 4% which most Financial Planners would say is a sustainable level, would yield $10,000/year.

    So yeah, $2 billion sounds like a lot until you do the math for 8,000 people…and recognize that those yet to retire will have far higher “guaranteed” retirement amounts per year than those already retired.

    The Pension boat has a hole in it thanks to ridiculous giveaways under Union pressure in the early 2000′s.

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  3. Concerned Citizen says:

    I find it very interesting that Mr. Williamson’s career was spent working for an oil company that is heavily subsidized with Federal tax dollars and now he is suddenly concerned about how taxpayer’s money is spent. Additionally, in articles about County pensions, the Press Democrat always implies that County retirees are collecting exhorbitant pensions when the average pension is around $30,000. Nobody is getting rich off of that amount of money. How about some balance in your journalism?

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  4. Steveguy says:

    Besides the pension, many are promised health care premiums for life. Deluxe plans.

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  5. bear says:


    That’s $2 billion invested over many years. You must not have a 401K or any knowledge of long-term investments.

    Planning to retire on your Social Security? Good luck with that.

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  6. GAJ says:

    Two Billion divided by 8,000 comes out to $250,000 per person.

    Hardly enough to cover the exploding annual costs to support Public Employees the average of which is fast approaching $100,000 per year.

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  7. bear says:

    Two BILLION dollars in resources to cover the public debt to 8,000 past and current employees?

    Please explain the problem.

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  8. steve humphrey says:

    About time. I say we balance the board with 2 more like him.

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  9. Steveguy says:

    Nothing will happen until it all goes bankrupt. Until then they will squeeze more money from actual government ‘work’ like fixing the roads.

    Oh wait, they have abandoned the roads in favor of their own favors.

    Maybe the rank and file with small impacts on the pension system will wake up and realize that the heavy pension costs of ” the elite” is causing the un-sustainability of it all.

    Go ahead, justify $100,000 plus a year pensions. With medical for life, go ahead.

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  10. Nancy says:

    Mr. Williamson will just be swamped by the out of balanced retirement board of the union friendly, bias board. Why bother? What is really needed is a complete overhaul of the board, not a minor dent repair.

    The pension board swamp needs to be drained. A little fresh water will not make the swamp swimmable.

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  11. Papa ESoCo says:

    Well, too soon to tell, but, this might signal a small change in regards to Pensions:
    “Even under the best of circumstances, he said, Williamson will simply perpetuate that non-union orientation.

    “I expect him to be the most conservative and least retiree- and employee-oriented voice on the board,” he said.”

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