New Supervisor Gets Lesson in County Politics

Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo by: Violeta Vacqueiro)

Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo by: Violeta Vacqueiro)

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Orange County’s newest supervisor, Shawn Nelson, walked into Tuesday’s weekly meeting with a simple goal: Moving elected officials off the public pension system and into 401(k)-type retirement plans.

What he got instead was a lesson on how to put together a good old-fashioned political end run. His colleagues didn’t adopt his idea but also didn’t vote against it.

Instead, they left county Chief Executive Tom Mauk with a complicated homework list, which essentially took Nelson’s idea and morphed it into a series of policy questions about how elected officials should be set up for retirement.

Nelson has been closely tied to the pension isssue since making it the center of his campiagn for supervisor. He later angered his conservative backers by opting into the pension system, which he says was a mistake.

At one point during yesterday’s meeting, Nelson became visibly frustrated, taking issue with all the twists and turns his collegues were adding to the debate.

“You can make a chicken sound like the most complicated animal on the earth,” he said. But most cooks “just wring its neck and put it on the dinner table.”

Instead of putting Nelson’s idea on the table, supervisors wondered aloud about myriad possibilites and asked Mauk to study just about every one.

They asked him to explore how the county could get back into contributing to the federal Social Security system they are currently exempted from, how to structure a defined contribution plan, an annuity plan, the level of contributions from employee and employer, comparisons to the private sector, questions about the county’s recent ballot adoption preventing pension spikes.

Mauk ended up so confused that he had to draft a list and was corrected several times by supervisors. Eventually, he concluded, “I’m sure we’ll have other issues come up.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Nelson seemed dejected and lashed out saying, “I just personally feel that the staff get a sense … that this board is committed to getting off of defined benefits for electeds.”

They didn’t even give him that.

“This is a discussion item; we cannot give direction,” said board Chairwoman Janet Nguyen.

Then Supervisor Bill Campbell put the final nail in Nelson’s day.

“My sense is we’re all in agreement: It should transition from a defined benefit. … The question is: What does it look like?”


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