You know, trying to get a straight answer out of the County of Orange on this matter has been kind of like playing the arcade game “Wack-A-Mole.” Pinning anyone down long enough to get an official response is impossible. One advantage I have over my colleagues at Red County, The Orange County Register, or the Voice of OC, is that for my full time job I work for the County of Orange. I happen to know most of this stuff first hand. When I ask a question, I usually already know the answer, I am just looking to verify what I already think I know.
So this point from Chip Hanlon’s account over at RedCounty.com “The Last Word on the Shawn Nelson Pension Story” got a bit of a chuckle out of me.
In a conference call with members of the county’s H.R. department yesterday, the choices were explained to me like this: upon election to the Board, Nelson had a choice of taking either the defined benefit plan or defined contribution plan.
My chuckle was due to the comment that I got back from County Public Information officer Howard Sutter, an hour after Hanlon’s conference call, saying that is was still working on getting an answer. Talk about “Wack-A-Mole.”
Nelson told Dan Chmielewski that he had only two choices presented to him, and that they were to opt in to one of the two defined benefit plans (the 2.7 @ 55 plan or the recently approved hybrid plan). To clarify, that is not what county HR officials seem to have told Hanlon.
While these questions were swirling around the Hall of Administration I had previously submitted an information request to the Orange County Employees Retirement System (OCERS) regarding what options elected County officials have related to the pension plans. Below are the questions and responses I got from Robert Kinsler, Communications Division, Orange County Employees Retirement System.
1) It is my understanding that a County of Orange elected official has the option to choose whether or not to participate in the County of Orange pension plan within the first 30 days in office.
Response: You are correct that an elected official has the option to choose whether to participate in OCERS, but it is not required that the election be made within 30 days of entering office. There is no time frame on the election. See the language of the law pasted below.
2) This question is specifically related to an elected official changing offices from one elected position to another. If an elected official selects to enter the County of Orange plan, is that option irrevocable for the period they continuously hold any county elected office, or can the withdraw when elected to a new office?
Response: While the elected official is in the office they were in when they elected to participate in OCERS, the option is irrevocable until they leave office. They have the option to withdraw when they leave office. If they are elected to a new elected office or reelected to the original elected office, they have a new option to participate in OCERS.
3) The closest example I have to this is Supervisor John Moorlach who entered the County plan when he was appointed as County Treasurer/Tax Collector. When he was elected to the different office of County Supervisor in 2006, would he have been able to opt out of the County plan at the time of the transition from one elected office (Treasurer/Tax Collector) to another (County Supervisor).
Response: Yes, in this example, since he was elected to a different elected office, he would have ceased his term in the Treasurer/Tax Collector position and had the option to rescind his declaration to be a member of OCERS and withdraw his contributions. He would also have had the option to file a declaration to become a member of OCERS for the Supervisor elected office.
4) What is the vesting period for an elected official in the County Plan. Is it different from that of other regular employees of the County?
Response: Vesting is a tricky concept. There are different vesting periods for different reasons. But, the vesting period for all members is the same regardless of their position. A member can retire from OCERS with 10 years of service at age 50 or older, with thirty years of service no matter what age, at age 70 no matter the years of service or for safety members, with 20 years of service no matter what age.
Here is the language of the section addressing elective officers:
Section 31553 of the Government Code:
Elective officers become members of the retirement association on the first day of the calendar month following the filing of a declaration with the board to become a member, provided, however, that any such elective officer may, within 60 days after the expiration of the officer’s term of office or within 60 days after the officer ceases to hold the office, rescind the declaration and withdraw from the retirement association. In such cases, all contributions paid by the
member shall be refunded in the same manner as applicable to members terminating service.
In short, Shawn Nelson had the opportunity, as did Pat Bates and John Moorlach at the time they were elected as County Supervisors, to choose whether to opt in to the County Retirement system. Pat Bates made the conscious and proactive choice, to not opt in too the system. Both Shawn Nelson and John MoorlachÂ made the choice, despite their very vocal opposition to public employee pension plans, to take the very benefit they so strongly oppose.
I think Supervisor’s Nelson and Moorlach have therefore failed to pass their own Pension Reform Integrity Test. So to borrow from Chip Hanlon a bit…
Is Hypocrisy “The Last Word on Shawn Nelson’s Pension?”
Here is the take on these developments from Norberto Santana, Jr. Over at Voice of OC: Who Has a 2.7 at 55 Pension? Shawn Nelson.