By J.K. Yamamoto--San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s name has been in the news almost daily for several months, but it wasn’t because of his unchallenged bid for a third term in the Nov. 2 election.
At issue was Proposition B, a controversial pension reform measure that he placed on the ballot. Supporters called it “smart reform” while opponents labeled it “bad medicine.” The battle was fought with everything from posters and mailers to Facebook and YouTube.
Adachi was re-elected with 173,898 votes, but Proposition B was defeated with 102,949 (43.42 percent) in favor and 134,151 (56.58 percent) against.
“Although Prop B did not pass, we secured 46 percent of the vote and over 70,000 San Franciscans voted to pass Prop B into law,” Adachi said after early results were released. “We want to thank everyone who helped out on this remarkable effort. We have educated and informed thousands of San Franciscans on this important issue, which will continue to be debated and discussed in the months ahead.”
Adachi visited Japantown on Oct. 19 to present the case for Proposition B. The occasion was the Japanese American Democratic Club’s endorsement, which made it one of only three of the city’s chartered Democratic clubs in the “yes” column. The others were the Chinese American Democratic Club and the District 3 Democratic Club.
The measure was opposed by the San Francisco Democratic Party and various neighborhood Democratic clubs, unions representing city workers, and elected officials from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board of Supervisors.
Adachi explained why he authored Proposition B: “I saw what was happening to basic services in San Francisco … Year after year, we’ve seen services slashed, whether it’s afterschool programs for kids, whether it’s public schools. This is the first year we’ve canceled summer school for kids in the history of our city. 10,000 kids weren’t able to go to summer school because we didn’t have $4 million to pay for it.”
The costs of health care and pensions for city employees, he said, “are crowding out the other basic services that all San Franciscans rely on,” and even proposed taxes and fees are “still not going meet the escalating costs, which are estimated at between $50 million and $70 million a year. So we can either leave things as they are and let the chips fall where they may, or we can … attempt to address this problem.”
The measure “requires all city employees, including myself, to contribute towards our pensions,” Adachi said. “Currently, about 12,000 city employees do not contribute to their pensions. This will require all city employees to give 9 to 10 percent … The second thing it does is it requires all city employees to contribute toward their health care costs … The benefits that city employees get after Proposition B will still be extremely generous.”
Pointing out that public employees make up only 6 percent of the city’s workforce, he continued, “Essentially, your taxes are subsidizing these expenses. That was fine at times when the city could afford it. But we’re facing a $460 million deficit next year.”
Adachi estimated that pension costs are nearly $400 million this year and will rise to $675 million in two years. At this rate, he said, “the system is not going to be sustainable.” He projected the savings under Proposition B at between $120 million and $170 million.
Describing his proposal as “very modest,” he noted that over 77,000 San Franciscans, more than the 46,000 required, signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot.
Services for Youth
Jon Osaki, executive director of Japanese Community Youth Council, offered his support, saying, “If there ever was a sacred cow in San Francisco, the city pension fund would definitely qualify as one. And nobody’s been willing to touch it. The reason I’m here speaking as part of it is very simply because I’m an advocate for the children and youth of San Francisco …
“Last year our organization was faced with complete elimination of funding for youth programs here in Japantown, 100 percent … What people probably don’t know is that my organization still took over a million-dollar funding reduction from the city last year ...
“It’s not going to get better any time soon, and I just feel like we’re at a point where drastic action has to be taken. Nobody’s been willing to touch that, and I’m certainly in support of people having benefits when they retire, but I think as Jeff has explained it to me, what he’s proposing sounds very reasonable to me, and frankly not more than what the employees of JCYC already do …
“I’m here because I have to see the faces of kids that we have to turn away because we don’t have enough money to serve them. I have to see this on a daily basis … I am in support of any way that we can preserve vital services for children in San Francisco.
“I know many people who work for the city. They’re friends of mine. I’m not here to take anything away from them. I hope they don’t feel that way. But I think this is fair … asking people to contribute a little bit more to the benefits they receive.”
Osaki added that the situation was so dire that many non-profit community organizations “are closing because there simply aren’t enough resources to support their services anymore. That is tragic … Even when the budget situation was much better, we weren’t able to address the needs of all the young people. We’re only scratching the surface of the need out there.”
‘Sticking His Neck Out’
Rich Wada of JADC’s Executive Committee also stressed that the measure was not anti-labor: “Many of our members are former city employees. This is not an attack on the unions. This is not an attack on city employees.”
Among the members attending the press conference, he noted, Katherine Reyes was a public school teacher and Naomi Nishioka worked for the city for many years. Also present were Hatsuro Aizawa, Greg Marutani, Allen Okamoto and Patty Wada. Also serving on the Executive Committee are Nob Fukuda and Will Tsukamoto.
“What San Francisco is facing, many municipalities across this country are facing with the economic downturn,” Rich Wada said. “We can’t pay our bills. When this city was flush with money, the Board of Supervisors and the mayor agreed to pay raises, and the voters agreed to pay raises for firemen and police officers. But now we’re in an economic downturn and we’re on the hook for millions and millions of dollars ...
“Our community receives services from the City and County of San Francisco, youth services, services for the elderly, mental health, other types of services, the arts. Those monies will not be there if we continue to ignore this deficit.
“Jeff … is the only elected city official who’s willing to step up and take on this issue. It is the third rail of politics, like Social Security. Nobody wants to touch it. It is the responsibility of the mayor… and the Board of Supervisors, who continue to kick this problem down the road so another generation will have to face it.
“I think Jeff has to be commended for being willing to stick his neck out and put his career on the line on this issue. We are here to stand with him and support his effort … We’re not going to buy into a lot of scare tactics and other garbage that people are throwing at Jeff, because they’ve become very personal and they’re attacks against him. We’re going to say we’re not going to put up with this. We’re going to stand with a person who has stood for the people of San Francisco.”
Asked about opponents’ allegation that city workers would have to pay $5,000 more a year for health care, Adachi responded, “The city plan is one of three plans that city employees can choose, and it’s the most expensive plan ... It is true that under Proposition B the cost of that plan would be increased by about $5,000 a year (but) very few people are enrolled in this plan because it’s so expensive … That employee would have the option between two other plans, Blue Shield or Kaiser, which is the least expensive plan.
“I would point out that private sector employees pay … typically $75 a month. A city employee under Proposition B would pay about $8 a month. The private sector employees pay between $500 and $1,250 for health care …
“The city has promised to pay $4 billion worth of health care for city employees … So irrespective of all these numbers, if we don’t have money to provide the coverage that has already been promised to city employees, then you need to do something about it.”
He added, “I think there is a lot of misinformation out there. It doesn’t affect retiree pensions at all. It doesn’t affect teachers. But they have made these statements saying it does.“
Regarding the fact that no other elected official is supporting Proposition B, even those who have sided with him on other issues, Adachi recalled approaching the Board of Supervisors for endorsements. “They all recognized that something has to be done, but most told me quite frankly that because they rely on labor’s support to get re-elected, they couldn’t support this issue publicly. I understand that and I respect their reasons. But I think that’s one of the problems.”
Some retired politicians, most notably former Mayor Willie Brown, have come on board, as well as the San Francisco Business Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sing Tao Daily, the city’s largest Chinese-language newspaper.
Acknowledging that he faced a “tough campaign,” Adachi pledged to be “consistent with the message … Part of what we have to do is make sure people understand what this is.”
The press conference was followed by a brief walk through Japantown. Adachi stopped at Benkyodo, Paper Tree, Soko Hardware, Dentoh, Sakura Sakura and May’s Coffee Shop to drum up support.