The man who had Santa Ana officials wondering whether he’d “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants” apparently won’t get what he wants: A pension boost for his duties as the Santa Ana police union president. 

Gerry Serrano can’t count the special compensation he earns as police union president as pensionable, and thus cannot boost his public employee retirement benefits, ruled state pension officials at a CalPERS Board of Administration meeting on April 19. 

Serrano could either appeal for reconsideration or turn to the State Superior Court, said CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan. 

He’s one of Santa Ana’s highest-compensated employees with total pay and benefits hitting nearly $500,000 in 2020, according to Transparent California – all while doing no work for the city as part of his “full-time release” provision under the police union’s labor contract.

State pension officials first determined in 2020, in Serrano’s case, that money paid to a public employee – while on a full-time leave to steer a union – could not count toward their pension.

Yet Serrano – who didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed Tuesday – insisted through appeals, after what City Hall officials last year called a hostile pressure campaign over the issue by him, against them. One involving lawsuits and anti-SLAPP cases. 

City spokesperson Paul Eakins declined to comment on Tuesday.

But Serrano’s challenge to CalPERS pension rules also garnered interest at the state level, over the idea of expanding a public employee union leader’s pensionable prospects in California. 

Namely, Serrano got support from State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who helped seek changes to state law when Serrano came to her with his situation. 

At the time, Ma told Voice of OC the state pension question “does not apply to just one person. It also applies to teachers, firefighters, nurses, hotel workers, in-home support caregivers, and other public service workers.”

The CalPERS decision on Serrano all but affirms a similar Feb. 15 ruling by an administrative law judge – a ruling which came after Serrano appealed a prior CalPERS decision in 2020. 

“Because only special compensation performed as part of the member’s ‘normally required duties’ is reportable … and the SAPOA president has no normally required duties while on leave from the City, work performed on behalf of the union cannot qualify as special compensation, regardless of the nature of the work or its ultimate benefit to the City,” wrote Judge Adam L. Berg in the ruling.

Though Berg did rule in February that Serrano can get a pension bump through a category of pay known as an “Educational Incentive,” apparently because he received a Bachelor’s Degree from Cal State Long Beach. This reversed CalPERS’ 2020 decision.

Berg’s ruling went to CalPERS on April 19 as a matter of procedure, and board members adopted it.

The question of whether one of City Hall’s highest-compensated officials could reach for that higher sum had in some ways captivated observers at the state and local levels, and from different ends of the political spectrum. 

There were those on the left, the progressive activists and community organizers in Santa Ana, who on various occasions protested the Santa Ana Police Department, its spending priority in city budgets, and the power the police union seemed to wield in city politics.

“The police union stood in the way of allowing people to just fight for a better city,” said Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente, a progressive Santa Ana activist-turned-candidate for the State Assembly’s 68 District seat, in a Tuesday phone interview. 

In 2019, a majority of city council members at the time – most now out of office – approved millions in police pay raises just after voters passed a citywide sales tax increase in the midst of what City Hall told them was a budget shortfall. 

Many of those council members were supported by the police union, which had emerged as a heavy spender in citywide elections since Serrano became the union’s president in 2016.

Then there were those on the right, who took more kindly to law enforcement but didn’t take as kindly to unions in politics. 

Not everyone on the council supported the 2019 raises. 

One critic was the council’s lone Republican amongst a panel of Democrats at the time, Ceci Iglesias, who liked to pull spending items at meetings, especially the police raises. 

In 2020, a recall campaign financed primarily by the police union successfully ousted Iglesias from office. 

“There’s a lot less tension” between those on the left and right when it comes to police unions, said Will Swaim, president of the Libertarian think tank known as the California Policy Center, which is often critical of public sector unions. He’s also the late OC Weekly’s founding editor. 

“Serrano is the worst example of a police union run amok,” Swaim said in a Tuesday phone interview.

Then there were those within the union itself with their misgivings about where the organization seemed to be headed. 

One dues-paying member, Manuel Delgadillo, criticized what’s been heavy political spending by the union as reported in recent campaign finance reporting disclosure cycles. 

He said “it would be nice to see more money” go back to the members – “there are scholarships given to our members, families …”

Delgadillo added that Serrano “seems to be digging a hole for himself, in my opinion. He sued the city.” 

He was referring to a barrage of lawsuits Serrano filed against top city management. The city alleged it was part of his pension boost pressure campaign. 

“I don’t believe it’s helping our (bargaining unit) when we’re in contract talks,” Delgadillo said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.