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Leave the Woman Alone

The most pathetic continuing character in mystery fiction was created by the late, great Georges Simenon. She was Mme. Maigret, the virtually invisible wife of the great Parisian sleuth, Inspector Maigret of the French gendarmerie.

And she was always getting those late phone calls from the great inspector telling her he‘d miss dinner because he had to rush off to catch a suspect.

I thought of the long-suffering and fictional Mme. Maigret and many police spouses when I read the rankles regarding the $232,900 pension granted to the very real Alyce Block, who could probably tell her own stories as to how her husband Sherman Block’s career affected their lives together.

Now that he‘s gone, his widow collects no more than what he would have earned in his retirement -- had he lived to retire. That’s okay with me, but to some, all that money seems too much. The Daily News even front-paged a “public outcry,” which turns out to mean that some guy from Lancaster wrote them a really nasty letter about the matter.

In consequence of all this hoo-hah, the Board of Supervisors moved to raise a “task force” -- that‘s a fleet of destroyers and aircraft carriers to folks in my age bracket -- to vanquish whatever ungodly force was sloshing the county’s treasury into the coffers of greedy county retirees. The members responsible for this latest inquisition -- Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina -- are now patting themselves on the back hard enough to bust their rotator cuffs.

They‘ll stop this outrage, just wait and see!

No, they won’t. And there isn‘t a single employee at County Hall who doesn’t know what bullshit all this is. Just as it was when last the issue rolled around six years ago. When Supervisor Gloria Molina promised “pension spiking” reforms that would save the county hundreds of millions. We‘re still waiting for those savings.

There are, actually, two issues here: The first has to do with how the county got to paying some whopping pensions, and the second with how such pensions can -- very rarely -- carry over to survivors at their full amount when the intended recipient dies on the job. (Let us also remember that the taxpayers don’t pay the lion‘s share of pension expenditures -- that’s what the employees‘ payroll deductions and investment plans are for.)

Like many veteran county employees, Block was enrolled in the notoriously opulent pension “Plan A.” This plan, trumpeted decades ago as a negotiation triumph by the county unions, was meant to lighten the golden years of low-level employees with a pension equal to their slavish career salaries. But then the plan was also (quite lawfully) embraced by the county’s top wage earners and gilded by a court decision that allowed retirees to collect additional benefits -- giving those in the plan pensions larger than their original salaries. Plan A was junked in 1977, but its aftershocks will keep on irking the bean counters until the last of the young hirees to grab its gold ring retire around 2030.

That Block died on the job isn‘t in doubt, but that’s not -- as the supervisors stress -- the same thing as having died in the course of his duties. The 74-year-old Block -- who‘d long been in bad health -- had a stroke and fell in his bathtub or vice versa. Either way, the official nine-member pension board of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association ruled that Block died on the job -- as far as I can determine, becoming the only sheriff to do so in this century. Had he retired the week before and died, Mme. Block would have been eligible only for some $150,000 a year. Now she earns what he would have in retirement. But the idea that inflating on-job death claims is a major factor in county pension outlays is absurd.

Block was well over twice the average age of most sheriff’s employees who die in the county‘s employ -- and the others’ on-job demises are usually far less peaceful than Block‘s.

A better reason that Alyce Block’s widow‘s pension is high is because Block’s salary was high -- nearly $230,000 per year. For the board to bitch about Mme. Block‘s remittance after authorizing myriad automatic boosts to the sheriff’s salary during his almost 17 years in office is pure, morbid opportunism, and probably sexist to boot.

That high salary is a tradition, however. The oldest record I can find of the Los Angeles County sheriff‘s salary is the $5,000 per year offered in the late 1850s, which was close enough to what a typical railroad president made then, and nearly $150,000 in today’s money.

But even so, the job mightn‘t have been your first-choice career move: The L.A. County sheriff was then the sole law west of the Colorado River, north of San Diego and south of Santa Barbara -- for Los Angeles County then included what are now Orange and San Bernardino counties. The risk was higher: No fatal tub falls, but at least two of the 1850s’ sheriffs were gunned down on the job.

Despite the reduced personal risks and county boundaries, no one has since offered the sheriff a pay cut. Which is still no excuse to beat up on his widow.

Leading the cry on this issue was county TreasurerTax Collector Mark Saladino, who, in a stiff report to the board, claimed that “What happened with the sheriff‘s widow is not that unusual.” But actually, he couldn’t come up with a single further example of widows taking advantage of their spouses‘ dying in county employment.

Instead, he presented some “Mr. Bad Example” cases full of anonymous detail while -- insofar as they all involved living retirees -- bereft of any similarities to Block’s. “Officers who win job-stress benefits because of obesity and alcoholism,” for instance. You mean stress never drives people to drink or overeating? He also spoke of “the heart presumption,” meaning that fire and law-enforcement people‘s heart ailments are usually presumed by the retirement board to be job-related. There’s an easy way to prove they aren‘t?

All this reminds me of those Reagan-era welfare anecdotes. Remember the man who bought his daily vodka with food stamps and the woman who bore 18 little child-assistance recipients by as many different fathers?

None of them was typical of the average relief recipient, any more than was Saladino’s obese desk sergeant typical of those who get stress pensions.

Bad cases, it is said, make bad law. And as with the 1980s welfare-case fable -- and despite Saladino‘s protest that “most applicants are legitimately disabled” -- what’s visible here is a form of thinly veiled contempt. But this time, instead of focusing on allegedly lazy cheats and ne‘er-do-wells, the contempt is directed at the county’s most esteemed employees and their relatives. Whose representatives will very likely (I want to say “properly”) resist mightily any pension “reforms” the board might come up with.

Greening the Turf

S. David Freeman stomped into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power‘s Hope Street executive suite a little over two years ago, and the place hasn’t been the same since. What was then a declining, self-privileged bureaucratic autocracy is now perhaps as lean and mean as a city department can be.

It has to be, because otherwise it can‘t compete with the deregulation of the power industry that will soon bust open the DWP’s monopoly on selling city residents electricity. Which is why the DWP is marketing itself, offering “Green” watts to its L.A. customers. By accident, according to DWP, some people outside L.A.‘s boundaries also have received these elaborate mailings, including some of my Santa Monica neighbors: The brochures include color photos of and Green Power endorsements by Ralph Nader, Robert Redford and, last and not least, the DWP’s own David Freeman.

No problem, you might say. Except for one thing. As it happens, Freeman is also running for the local Assembly seat. Others who want the seat -- former Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vasquez for one -- think this DWP Green Power campaign gives Freeman a big visibility advantage.

This may well be true, but according to Lee Ann Pelham of the City Ethics Commission, as long as there‘s no mention of the election on the Green mailer, there’s no problem, legally. Even though that mailer is franked by the DWP and hence paid for by you ratepayers.

My calls to Freeman‘s office and that of DWP Green Power czar John Giese were not returned, by the way.