“Self-serving” is what one critic called the vote last week to sharply limit what candidates for the California Public Employees Retirement System board can include in their ballot statements. Certainly, “self-serving” is one word that characterizes that vote. “Anti-democratic,” “chilling” and “wrong” are among the others.
In a decision sweeping in its arrogance and disregard for First Amendment speech rights, the CalPERS board voted 9-4 to restrict ballot statements to “a recitation of the candidate’s personal background and qualifications” — and nothing more. Incredibly, board members even voted to delete a proposal by their staff that would have allowed ballot statements to include “candidates’ opinion or positions on issues of general concern to the system’s membership.”
Membership in this case means more than 1 million state and local government workers and retirees — the people whose $155 billion pension fund the powerful PERS board directs. How do PERS members benefit from ballot statements stripped of any information about what candidates for the pension board think about issues affecting their pensions?
Equally significant is what many see as the real motive behind the censorship vote: a provision in the newly approved election rules that bans any comment in ballot statements “about other candidates for office or another candidate’s qualifications, character or activities.”
A little history is instructive here: Last year, PERS board candidate Jim McRitchie mounted an aggressive but unsuccessful challenge to CalPERS board President William Crist. Among other things, McRitchie wrote in his ballot statement that Crist “had accepted gifts from those doing business with CalPERS.” No one challenged the truth of McRitchie’s ballot statement, but it infuriated Crist. In what an official protest panel later ruled as “arguably a technical violation of board rules,” incumbent Crist was allowed to amend his own ballot statement after the deadline to respond to McRitchie.
Campaigns for the pension board are not public in the ordinary sense. Voters include retirees and state and local government workers spread across California. Most of the information about the campaign and candidates comes from union newsletters. So the ballot statements are one of the few avenues candidates not endorsed by the major unions have to reach public employee voters. The vote by CalPERs incumbents muzzles challengers in ways that risk creation of a permanent board: unaccountable, untouchable and isolated from the people who elect it.
Members of the board who voted against the censorship measure were Treasurer Phil Angelides, Controller Kathleen Connell, the director of the Personnel Administration Marty Morgenstern (an appointee of Gov. Gray Davis) and Michael Flaherman.
Those who voted to deny candidate ballot information to pensioners and state and local government workers were William Crist, Charles Valdes, William Rosenberg, Robert Carlson, Joseph Thomas. Thomas Clark, Mike Quevedo Jr. (an appointee of the speaker and Senate Rules Committee), Ronald Alvarado and Rob Feckner.
PERS is required to seek public comment on the rule changes. The public should protest loudly and clearly.
(Published May 25, 1999 Sacramento Bee)