Almanac

News - April 21, 2010

Menlo Park: Pension poll hints at marketing campaign

by Sean Howell

Menlo Park residents reported receiving phone calls last week in an apparent marketing poll concerning a "pension reform" initiative that a group of residents has launched.

Based on reports from residents, the poll seems designed to shape a marketing campaign against the initiative effort, which would scale back pension payments to future non-police municipal employees. It provides a glimpse into the tactics that might be employed in such a campaign, such as linking the initiative to former council members Lee Duboc and Mickie Winkler, and noting that it would reduce pensions for librarians.

The company conducting the poll did not say who had paid for it, according to people who were surveyed.

Sharon McAleavey, a spokeswoman for the union that represents the city's middle management employees, said that her union is not connected to the poll. A call to a representative of Service Employees International, the city's largest employee union, was not returned.

The initiative would reduce pension payments to public employees from four-fifths to three-fifths of their annual salary, would increase the retirement age from 55 to 60, and would require a popular vote for any future increase in pension benefits.

Henry Riggs, one of the leaders of the initiative drive, said the group had expected resistance from employee unions from the beginning. "To be honest, so far this looks to me pretty light," he said. "I'm expecting more drama, not less. ... We've talked about it, and have been prepared (for resistance) since the time we said, 'OK, we're gonna do this.'"

The group is in the process of gathering signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. It's on target for its goal of 2,400 signatures by its deadline of early May, according to Mr. Riggs.

He said that his group plans to campaign in support of the initiative until November, assuming it makes the ballot.

"There's no 15-word blurb that addresses what we're trying to do," Mr. Riggs said. "The alternative points of view will be disseminated thoroughly, whereas we will be lucky to knock on the doors of 20 percent of voters."

The fact that the poll is being conducted could be a boon to proponents of the initiative, some of whom have sought to cast themselves as grassroots advocates standing up to well-funded special interests. In an e-mail to supporters, Ms. Duboc said that she anticipated a "shoot the messenger" campaign from opponents of the initiative drive. She is involved in the effort, but is not its public face.

"The unions will spare no effort or expense in attempting to derail" the pension initiative, she wrote in a January e-mail.

John Kadvany, a member of Menlo Park's Planning Commission, provided The Almanac with detailed notes he took when contacted in the survey. According to Mr. Kadvany, the caller asked several times whether he would support the initiative, testing the effectiveness of various arguments in favor of and in opposition to it. It asked for respondents' reaction to several names, including those of Ms. Duboc and Ms. Winkler, the "pension reform" group, the Tea Party movement, CalPERS (the state pension fund), and SEIU (the employee union).

According to Mr. Kadvany, the interlocutor asked whether he would support the initiative if he knew it would apply to road workers and librarians, and if he knew that public employees do not receive Social Security. He was also asked whether he would be persuaded by arguments that the city needs to stand up to the unions, and that the initiative drive represents a mean-spirited attack by Tea Party activists.

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