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Supervisor had 2 take-home cars, but denied it (DN)

Posted on 25 November 2015 (0)
Mike Reicher, L.A. Daily News

Mike Reicher, L.A. Daily News

On the Los Angeles County government’s official list of employee take-home vehicles, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas looks very frugal. His assigned car, a 9-year-old Chrysler 300 Limited sedan, cost the county about half as much as the next supervisor’s. But newly released vehicle maintenance records show that Ridley-Thomas, for most of last year, actually had two cars at his disposal. He mainly drove a 2012 version of the same model, a $39,000 taxpayer-owned car, that was essentially off the books.

The documents reveal that Ridley-Thomas, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was stretching the county’s vehicle resources more than other supervisors, and that he misrepresented his situation when challenged. Workers maintained, cleaned and fueled his two working cars for seven months, according to the records. They washed one of the sedans nearly three times a week.

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Why the DWP owns an empty, $150K/year lodge (DN)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Mike Baker, Los Angeles Daily News

Mike Baker, Los Angeles Daily News

A seven-bedroom historic lodge crowns the highest hill of Boulder City, Nev. Under a clay tile roof, its sunroom commands sweeping views of Lake Mead. A live-in caretaker stands by, ready to serve five-course gourmet meals on fine china.

But he’s usually dining alone. The house’s owners, the customers of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, live 300 miles away. “No Trespassing. Private Road,” warns a sign.

In the eastern Mojave Desert, this guest lodge is rarely used by the department. Instead, the DWP pays nearby hotels more than $500,000 each year to house workers, and it reserves the lodge for high-level meetings, despite owning an office building minutes away. Ratepayers, meanwhile, spent more than $153,000 last fiscal year to run the 1931 Spanish Colonial Revival house.

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Should deputies be paid for changing clothes? (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Orange County Register

Orange County Register

Orange County Register

Most agree that taxpayers should pay police well for risking their lives in the line of duty.

But should they be paid for the time they spend strapping on their gun belt and bulletproof vest? Or tying their boot laces? What if the department insists they dress in the stationhouse, instead of at home?

Hundreds of Orange County Sheriff’s deputies sued the department between 2005 and 2012, saying they spent up to 30 minutes getting dressed before work, and up to 28 minutes undressing – and they weren’t getting compensated.

Donning and doffing, the legal term for putting on or taking off work clothes, made headlines last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a steel company couldn’t be forced to compensate its workers for the time it takes them to put on safety gear such as flame-retardant jackets and pants.

In the case of Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, the high court ruled most of that safety gear was a form of clothing. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the court said, employers cannot be required to pay workers for donning work clothes unless both sides agree to that as part of a union contract.

While attorneys say that case applies directly to the issues raised by Orange County deputies, it won’t help county officials.

That’s because the county spent millions fighting the donning and doffing issue in federal court – won a victory – and then settled in 2012 rather than litigate an appeal.

The court battle, which has cost the county $3.7 million in legal fees, cash settlements and time off for deputies, has received little public attention.

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Pension board takes $450 million risk (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)

orangecountyOrange County Register

In the past year, the Orange County Public Employees Retirement System board has agreed to loan $450 million to companies in the U.S., Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, mostly little-known companies with poor credit ratings that need cash.

Officials are hoping the loans, made through investment managers, will supercharge earnings. But they acknowledge some of the investments are risky and each loan’s principal could be lost.

Retirement boards across the U.S. are exploring more exotic investments – well beyond stocks and bonds – to keep pace with promised pension benefits and large unfunded liabilities. Experts vary on the wisdom of chasing high-return investments, but most agree they should be limited in a public pension fund.

OCERS has invested more and sooner in direct lending than most other large public pension funds. Direct lending accounts for slightly more than 4 percent of the assets in the $10.9 billion OCERS fund.

“There’s no such thing as a 15 percent safe investment … There are reasons banks aren’t doing these loans,” said John Shoven, director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “It would be risky in the extreme if this became a large part of the portfolio. But at the 5 percent level, I (would be) willing to take the risk.”

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Mesa Water’s $500,000 rebranding (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Orange County Register

Native American musicians blessed the “ancestral waters,” valets parked cars for 150 “VIP” guests and $50,000 event planners passed out catered custom cookies shaped like water drops and redwood trees – $1,500 worth of cookies.

Last month’s unveiling of a revamped water filtration facility is just a small example of Mesa Water District’s lavish spending on marketing and communications.

While raising rates, the public provider of Costa Mesa’s drinking water has increased its communications spending by 300 percent in four years. It now wields a $1.25 million annual budget that dwarfs those at similar water districts. The district serves just 110,000 customers.

People don’t have a choice in their water provider, yet district officials want to pump up their reputation. They say not enough ratepayers know their name, which could be a problem during natural disasters, or when officials need to pass a bond measure. But an underlying motivation, board meeting minutes show, may be their desire to remain an independent agency in the face of criticism. To raise their profile, Mesa officials have paid six figures to public relations consultants and staff.

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ALSO READ: Mesa Water drops branding campaign after backlash

ALSO READ: Mesa Water denied copyright for pricey logo

Streetlight repair times uneven across L.A. (DN)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Streetlight repair interactive map

Streetlight repair interactive map

How long does it take a city electrician to replace a light bulb? It’s not a trick question. The answer: It depends on where you live.

City repair records indicate that residents in some Los Angeles neighborhoods waited an average of eight days to have their lights repaired, while some waited just two.

Repairs lagged both in the city’s wealthiest and poorest districts. With such a wide region to cover, officials struggled to provide even-handed service. Spots of darkness annoyed and unnerved residents across town. Now, the Bureau of Street Lighting may soon ask residents to pay more for maintenance — a proposition that could meet some resistance.

“They’re already paying for those services, and they deserve them,” said Councilman Curren Price Jr., whose South Los Angeles district is among the slowest. “They should have the lights on.”

Bureau of Street Lighting officials blame the delays on equipment, geography, copper theft and budget cuts. Some neighborhoods have 90-year-old systems and the bureau doesn’t stock replacement parts; crews have to wait for orders. And they say it simply takes longer to drive to Brentwood from East Hollywood, where the central maintenance yard is located.

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Officials get cash for concerts, funerals, parties (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register

Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register

Orange County Register

On Thursday evenings during the summer, the elected directors of the Midway City Sanitary District enjoy the Westminster Concerts in the Park and some charge trash and sewer ratepayers for a “day of service” – $207.

All five of the sewage directors attended the 2012 series, which featured a local bagpipe group. Midway City board members Frank Cobo and Allan Krippner claimed meeting pay, according to public records, for four shows total.

It’s about “interacting with the people whom we serve,” Krippner said. “Believe me. You don’t get rich on this little job.”

The bagpipe concerts are one example of how directors are compensated at 15 Orange County special districts, small independent agencies responsible for water, sewer or trash removal.

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While fees climbed, pension earnings lagged (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)

orangecountyOrange County’s public pension system poured money into hedge funds, private equity and other so-called alternative investments during the past six years, but the returns have proven mediocre despite costing millions in fees.

This year alone, the fund is expecting to pay $54.5 million to alternative-investment managers, according to a budget briefing document obtained by the Orange County Register.

But in financial reports through the first half of the year, the pension system disclosed none of those fees. Officials said they are following standard government reporting practices.

Indeed, the Orange County Employees Retirement System is not alone.

As pension funds nationwide struggle to make up large unfunded liabilities, public officials have shifted billions of dollars to risky investments like hedge funds instead of traditional stocks and bonds. Fund leaders say it’s a way to diversify their portfolios, and they argue for patience with new investments.

But experts say the results, in most cases, have been lackluster earnings for public pension funds and a boon for Wall Street money managers.

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Could supervisor’s votes be conflicts? (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Orange County Register

It was a cozy affair – a gathering of high-powered Orange County hospital leaders paying tribute to county Supervisor Janet Nguyen.

About 15 executives huddled with Nguyen on Feb. 28, 2012, in the Lemon Heights home of Dan Brothman, CEO of Western Medical Center Santa Ana and senior vice president of operations for Integrated Healthcare Holdings Inc. They noshed on meatballs in Brothman’s family room and inked $5,000 worth of checks for Nguyen’s summer re-election.

Brothman would later describe the fundraiser as a “meet and greet” with Nguyen.

Two days later, Nguyen voted as a trustee for Orange County’s health network for the poor – Cal-Optima – to pay $750,000 to IHHI-owned hospitals to settle a lawsuit over unpaid bills. A unanimous vote March 1, 2012, by five members of CalOptima’s board of directors was held in closed session and has still not been disclosed by CalOptima.

The 2009 breach-of-contract lawsuit by IHHI alleged CalOptima failed to pay Integrated Healthcare hospitals for $2 million worth of services to Medi-Cal patients covered by CalOptima. Court records show it is one of a number of similar suits filed by hospitals against the agency.

The Orange County Register confirmed the vote and the settlement through court documents and interviews with officials involved in the case.

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Water officials’ meals, travel top $170,000 (OCR)

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Michael Kitada, for the Register

Michael Kitada, for the Register

Orange County Register

They ordered a $50 bone-in aged rib-eye steak and crème brulee at The Falls Prime Steakhouse in Palm Springs. At a dinner for two, the Mesa Water District board members charged $144 to a district credit card.

It was the eve of last year’s Urban Water Institute conference, which featured such topics as “explaining to constituents why water rates are going up while water use is down.”

The dinner was a small portion of what top Mesa Water managers and directors spend on conferences, food and travel. Credit card statements and other expense documents obtained by the Register show that five directors and eight staff members rang up more than $170,000 in expenses over 2011 and 2012.

Spending ranged widely among the 13 – one individual spent less than $2,000, the general manager more than $30,000.

During the two years, they charged $45,500 for in-town meals, at least $36,000 at hotels and $21,000 in airfare.

All the directors rode in jets, three rode in chauffeured town cars and one rented a Cadillac sedan for $409. Four of them also dined at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and several at the Balboa Bay Club.

Four directors also collected $207 stipends for a “general manager meeting” on the same days they dined with the district’s chief executive at local restaurants, with the tab picked up by the district.

“The reason all this is happening is nobody is paying attention to them,” said Robert Stern, an attorney who helped write the state’s Political Reform Act. “Nobody’s watching.”

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