Government at work, watch your back

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The Bakersfield Californian | Saturday, May 21 2011 10:00 PM

I truly would like to think that the people running our county actually know what they’re doing and have the public’s best interests at heart.

Then I read the paper.

SIGH!

Two things are sticking in my craw this time.

First: Kimberly Mullins, the most recent head of Kern County Animal Control, was doing a good job.

Everyone said so. Including her boss Public Health Director Matt Constantine. In fact, that’s what he told us right before he fired her last week for unknown reasons.

Constantine hid behind the skirts of it’s-a-confidential-personnel-matter to get out of saying what really happened.

But I think it’s clear that Mullins had become a political hot potato for her questioning of the euthanization practices of Bakersfield City Animal Control. (See James Burger’s stories in Saturday’s and today’s papers.)

Mullins had what she believed were legitimate questions about possibly illegal activities based on her examination of county records.

She went through proper channels to pursue the answers. Constantine apparently approved her actions.

Yet, she was canned while Constantine tried to placate the city for her unseemly inquiries.

Frankly, the whole mess reeks of bureaucratic CYA.

If I hadn’t seen how hard Mullins worked to increase transparency in Animal Control, support her staff, seek new funding, solicit fresh ideas and bring together animal groups (notorious for their rivalries and distrust), I might shrug off her firing.

But, again, she was doing a good job.

Not only that, the public deserves to know whether Bakersfield Animal Control was handling field euthanizations properly. That is kind of a key issue considering we’ve been smacked around by the courts for ignoring laws on when animals can be put down (at Constantine’s direction, by the by).

At the very minimum, the Board of Supervisors and Bakersfield City Council should initiate a joint investigation to figure out what really happened here.

Now that THAT’S out of my craw, on to item two.

Kern Supervisors have been charging hard at reforming employee pensions, which I agree had become way too pricey. Especially cop and fire fighter pensions.

But the county’s tunnel vision on this very complicated issue could trip them up — again.

Last time I wrote about this, the county had screwed up its final contract offer to county fire fighters, forgetting they already pay at least a small percentage of their pension costs. (County negotiators fixed their “typographical” error and resubmitted the offer. Fire fighters now have until June 13 to give an answer.)

In the course of updating how the county cleaned up that little mess, I learned there’s a clause in the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) contract that disallows any changes to retirement benefits for employees hired before August 6, 2004 without the union’s agreement.

That means even if the county imposes conditions, it cannot change the pension formula for that group of employees — all 3,500 of them.

The employee portion of pension contributions for that group is about $17 million a year, according to SEIU’s attorney Kerianne Steele, who noted the clause makes this a vested right for those employees and reams of case law uphold that right.

Susan Wells, Kern’s employee relations officer, said that wasn’t an issue because, she argued, the clause expired when the overall contract expired. But it’s not that simple. (Which is why there are lawyers.)

Aside from this being a vested right, most labor contracts also have measures that keep the contract, including pay and working conditions, in force while negotiations are ongoing. Otherwise, who would ever negotiate a new contract? Employers would just let the old one expire and do what they wanted.

What the county wants is for all employees to pay 20 percent of their medical costs and all of their portion of the pension contribution. The new costs would be phased in over five years.

Steele told me SEIU negotiators mentioned the pension clause numerous times in an effort to get the county to work with them on pay and other issues. No dice.

“They’ve never worked with us on saving money elsewhere,” said Regina Kane, president of SEIU, Local 512. “This is just knee jerk on their part.”

Yes, and knee jerk has worked so well getting us into this retirement mess in the first place.

SEIU members shot down the county’s offer last month. They’re back to fact finding mode, asking detailed questions about the county’s finances.

“If they do impose, we would have to go to the Public Employee Relations Board and get the lawyers to look at that clause,” Kane said. “I’m really hoping it doesn’t come to that.”

Given how much that will cost taxpayers, I am too.

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