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Business leader wants public pension decisions in voters' hands

August 15, 2012 | 12:08 pm

The top executive at one of Los Angeles’ key business groups called Wednesday for a ballot measure that would yank decisions on the pension benefits of civilian city employees away from the mayor and City Council and turn them over to the voters.

Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, submitted a plan to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the Council for cutting employee costs and limiting the growth of pension contributions by taxpayers.

Toebben was one of several civic leaders to show up Wednesday at an 8 a.m. meeting of the city’s labor negotiations committee, which is weighing Villaraigosa’s proposal to scale back benefits and increase the retirement age for newly hired civilian employees. The contingent included former Mayor Richard Riordan and Tracy Rafter, chief executive of the advocacy group known as BizFed.

Toebben offered his own plan for scaling back benefits -- one that goes further than Villaraigosa's -- saying that growing retirement costs now threaten "essential" city services. Having citizens in charge of civilian retirement benefits, he added, would increase the chances that the city’s pension woes would not be so dire in coming years.

“If we don’t make these changes, we will have to continue making cuts to city services, and those cuts will make this city less livable than individuals and businesses will want it to be,” Toebben said. “We will find our economic base reduced, and we will be in the middle of a vicious cycle” where declining business activity leads to even more cuts at City Hall.

Riordan said he would support any plan that will "solve the problem,” whether it is the mayor’s or Toebben’s.

“We are going broke like every city in California,” he said. “The mayor, the council and the unions. . . have to come up with the will to do something to avoid insolvency. I think you need something in the next couple of months.”

Toebben also proposed a measure, which resembles one in San Diego, that would freeze the salaries of civilian city employees if the city’s pension contribution exceeds 15% of their salaries. And he argued that having voters, not Los Angeles elected officials, determine the size of those benefits would bring “transparency” to the issue.

“Right now these discussion are held ... behind closed doors and the public has little, if any, input,” he said.

Toebben said the chamber will weigh in on the ballot proposal once the council decides what to do with Villaraigosa's pension proposal. He said he would like to see the measure appear on the March or the May ballot.

Voters already decide the pensions of retired police officers and firefighters in Los Angeles.

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-- David Zahniser and Kate Linthicum at Los Angeles City Hall

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