Monday, October 25, 2010 | On his first day in office, Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson told his colleagues that their idea for reforming the county pension system was window-dressing and wouldn’t make a dent in the $3.7 billion unfunded liability that faces Orange County’s retirement system.
A few meetings later, he began by joking about the size of fellow Supervisor John Moorlach’s head after Moorlach put on a construction hat in support of a change order for John Wayne Airport.
Nelson then proceeded to roast the expensive change order, despite the fact that Moorlach, Orange County’s reigning Republican fiscal heavyweight, supported it.
Usually, a newcomer to a body like the Orange County Board of Supervisors keeps a low profile while learning the ropes of their new job. That has not been Nelson’s approach.
“I’m not a lifer politician,” said Nelson, a trial attorney and former Fullerton city councilman who easily beat Anaheim council members Harry Sidhu and Lorri Galloway in a June special election to fill the seat of Supervisor Chris Norby, who himself was catapulted into the state Assembly after another special election.
Moorlach acknowledged that Nelson’s “been asking a lot of questions” and has an aggressive style. He said he finds the rookie supervisor’s approach “refreshing.”
“I’m really enjoying him. It’s added a new dynamic of fun for me. He’s willing to probe and ask questions,” Moorlach said. “It’s healthy.”
However, Moorlach said Nelson is still wrong in his critiques of the pension reform proposal rolled out last year by the all-Republican county Board of Supervisors and the Orange County Employees Association, the county’s main public employee union.
An Unexpectedly Prickly Issue
During the campaign, Nelson poked organized labor in the chest by challenging the growth of public sector pensions. They poked back with one brutal campaign mailer after another against Nelson, singling out his voting record in Fullerton, his law practice clientele marketing, and his campaign contributions.
OCEA, along with the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, spent more than a million dollars hammering Nelson and supporting Sidhu.
While Nelson came out well ahead of the field in June, the curious nature of the election classified it as a primary with Nos. 1 and 2 taking each other on in November. That ended up being Nelson and Sidhu.
To be sure, Nelson, as a now-incumbent supervisor, has big advantage over Sidhu in November’s general election. However, his situation does have its downsides. One being that every mistake he makes as a supervisor becomes amplified.
And Nelson laid a big political egg with one of his first official actions. Just before he was formally inaugurated in June, the man who had built his campaign around fighting runaway pensions opted for one of his own.
He set himself up for a pension that — because of his service as a Fullerton city councilman — could have given him as much as $15,000 monthly in retirement. Bloggers feasted on the issue and his conservative backers went public with their disgust.
“WTF?” was a memorable question posed by Red County’s Chip Hanlon.
Nelson backpedaled furiously and was able to pull back his paperwork and opt out of the system. But the entire episode gave Sidhu an opening, which he has seized with campaign mailers accusing Nelson of being a hypocrite.
Nelson has fired back at Sidhu and even threatened him with legal action, saying that Sidhu is accusing him of doing something that he never actually did because he pulled back his paperwork in time.
He followed up by proposing in public that all countywide elected officials give up their pensions altogether and get the 401(k) plans they want to give workers. Nelson lost that vote.
But the action seemed to gain him back the support of the conservative base.
A Distinct Style at the Dais
Despite his high-profile and combative stances, Nelson denies that he’s campaigning from the dais. He insists he’s just being himself, which is what he says the people want.
Voters “didn’t send me here to be quiet,” Nelson said.
“I’ll make mistakes, but I’m righteous in my effort. I’m really trying for the people, like my dad, my next door neighbor,” Nelson said. “They want a guy up there saying, ‘Enough of the bull.’”
When John Wayne Airport officials approached the board for the change-order hiking the costs of the airport improvements, Nelson called county staff on the carpet in public for failing to properly estimate the job or failing to hold contractors’ feet to the fire.
At another meeting, Nelson erupted at the county’s legislative staff when they gave the county’s lobbyist firm, Platinum Advisers, an overly glossy review when it was time to renew their multi-year contract.
“It just irritates me they wrote their own review,” Nelson said.
The exchange also got Nelson curious about how many employees work as legislative analysts in the myriad departments throughout the bureaucracy.
“They’re in panic mode,” Nelson said about the initial responses he’s getting.
When county planning staff came up with a moratorium on marijuana dispensaries in anticipation of November’s election on the statewide legalization proposal, Nelson scolded them publicly.
“The whole approach is if the people vote for something we don’t want, we need some time to stonewall,” Nelson said. “Are the people really paying me to figure that out?”
If the voters want legal pot, Nelson said, the county bureaucracy should figure out how to make that happen in the safest and most efficient manner from a planning perspective, using similar rules for, say, liquor stores.
And if a government agency can’t do anything for the taxpayers, then it should consider going out of business, Nelson figures. That’s what he’s proposed for the county’s joint powers authority that governs the maintenance of the civic center.
At one recent meeting, Nelson proposed doing away with the Civic Center Joint Powers Authority — set up in 1966 — because it didn’t do anything for the county and just helped finance grounds improvements for Santa Ana City Hall, which shares the civic center grounds with the county.
He lost that vote when the supervisor in charge of that district, Janet Nguyen, backed up the city she’s there to represent and seemingly shut Nelson down. Her colleagues stuck with Nguyen, seeming to back up the hallowed concept of district-prerogative among supervisors (meaning supervisors don’t mess in other supervisors backyards). They all voted against Nelson.
In fact, the word “no” could end up tattooed on his door by the end of his term, not only with Nelson getting shut down, but with him resisting the majority.
“I probably vote no [more often] than the rest already,” Nelson said.
Winning Over Past Critics
Nelson’s inability to stay quiet visibly irritated Nguyen at the start of his tenure. She said in public that he didn’t do his homework before sounding off.
Nugyen stomped all over Nelson’s critiques of the pension reform proposal as “window dressing,” as well as his idea to dissolve the Civic Center Joint Powers Authority.
Nguyen said Nelson’s public criticisms of the pension proposal showed his lack of experience: He should have talked to supervisors first and got information before firing off in public with conclusions that Nguyen said are flat-out wrong.
Yet throughout the ensuing months, Nelson seems to have won Nguyen over, actually getting her to co-endorse in the race. Nguyen had previously endorsed Sidhu in the upcoming November election.
Nguyen quietly co-endorsed Nelson a few weeks ago. When asked about it, she credited Nelson for developing a better rapport with her office and having an open mind when she sought support for her constituents or issues.
In essence, Nguyen said Nelson was becoming a better team player.
Nelson also has, to a degree, mended fences with OCEA, which could have helped Sidhu generate the kind of campaign mail needed to damage Nelson in the upcoming November election on the pension issue.
“We have not endorsed anybody or spent any money” is the only thing OCEA’s general manager, Nick Berardino, would say about the county supervisor race.
Yet when asked what he thought of Nelson, Berardino didn’t hesitate to say the two stand on different ground than they did in June.
Berardino has long argued that rank-and-file workers unfairly get politically tarred and feathered by conservative pundits and politicians when it comes to pensions and benefits.
He said he’s found that Nelson has a working-class kind of conservative approach to issues that is fairer to workers.
“We decided to explore if there were things we had in common. And found we had more in common than not,” Berardino said.
Nelson said that since being elected, he’s spent more time reaching out and come to a better understanding about what kinds of costs and concessions are connected to different labor groups (workers, managers, executives, cops and firefighters) when it comes to pensions and wages.
“He’s been accessible,” Berardino said. “And demonstrated that he’s an analytical thinker. And not afraid to challenge the multiple bureaucratic deceptions advanced by the executive managers.”
Given that, does Berardino regret this summer’s political battle with Nelson that cost his side more than half a million in campaign costs? The only reply Berardino offered is, ironically, the best summary of Nelson’s own approach to his office.
“Past regrets and future fears is a recipe for disaster in politics.”