UPDATE: San Jose continues talks on stripping felons of retirement benefits
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

A proposal by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to shut felonious city workers out of their retirement benefits will move to a future “closed session” meeting, a San Jose committee decided Wednesday.

The city’s Rules and Open Government Committee ultimately decided with a 4-1 vote to move the proposal to a closed-door meeting with the full City Council and the city attorney’s office at a future date. The council and city attorney will discuss the legality of the proposal before it moves forward to a full public meeting.

“As long as we go to closed session and have this discussion about what next steps could and should be, and give an opportunity for us to give direction to (Director of Employee Relations/Human Resources Jennifer Schembri) and find out more from (City Attorney Nora Frimann), I think that would be good,” said Councilmember Dev Davis, who sits on the Rules committee.

The proposal, issued in a memo from Liccardo, looks to cancel retirement benefits for any city employee who commits a felony or is convicted of treason. The city’s retirement board can allow payment of any benefits that the worker’s spouse or children are entitled to as long as they don’t live or share expenses with the retiree.

A similar ordinance is already in the city’s charter, though Liccardo’s proposal would make canceling retirement benefits automatic after a felony charge instead of being subject to review by the city’s retirement board.

Some city workers and union representatives oppose the proposal, saying it needs to specify what felonies will be considered since they believe it’s too broad and will unevenly affect people of color, who are disproportionately convicted of felonies.

“I know that our pension plan is underfunded, but I don’t believe this proposal is the way to fix it,” Mary Blanco, a member of Operating Engineers Local 3 said Wednesday. “It will do more harm than good.”

A discussion among members of the committee and Frimann revealed the item has to be further vetted by the city attorney’s office before moving forward, which includes looking at the city’s charter and current state legislation that strips retirement benefits from felons. That opened up new concerns from committee members, including Councilmember David Cohen, who said the proposal was too broad.

“My instinct tells me that there were some steps that were bypassed in bringing this to (the Rules committee) before having some conversation about this, before potentially discussing whether this is a question for negotiation with bargaining units,” Cohen said. He suggested the committee have a discussion about what felonies and unions should be considered in the proposal before a City Council vote. “I think there has to be a little more research that has to be done before we’re ready for the council to have this discussion.”

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas agreed and said the city already does a good job checking the backgrounds of city employees and felt it was too soon to move the proposal forward without speaking to union leaders.

“I thought it was a very broad-brushed approach to crime, especially felony crime, that is so nuanced,” Arenas said. “Even murder is so nuanced. It’s not just murder. It’s second-degree murder, it’s manslaughter. There’s so much to murder and sexual assault, which are two areas where I’d definitely draw the line in terms of who we have working with our public.”

She added that the proposal shuts out people already convicted of crimes trying to rehabilitate their lives with work.

According to the memo, Liccardo learned from a CNN reporter that two retired San Jose police officers continue receiving pensions between $70,000 to $90,000 annually despite being convicted of sexual assault, which motivated him to issue the proposal.

“Our taxpaying residents, employees and retirees all deserve better,” Liccardo said in the memo.

Councilmember Raul Peralez believes that there are “gray areas” that need to be resolved before he supports the proposal, including better defining what felonies qualify for stripping benefits.

“We don’t have that clarity here,” Peralez said. “I would suggest the mayor comes back to Rules with a different proposal. Or if he wants to come back with the same proposal, I’d ask staff to come back with an actual response.”

Other cities have different procedures for dealing with convicted felons on their benefit rolls. Nicholas Stella, a Chicago police officer convicted in a gambling ring last week, lost his retirement benefits, while Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of the second-degree murder of George Floyd, is still eligible for pension benefits worth more than $1 million.

“We need to figure out first if this is legal,” Arenas said of the proposal. “Let’s sit down with our unions and figure out if this is really an issue or not.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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