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Community Commentary: Daily Pilot editorial made too many sweeping generalizations

November 01, 2011|By Tom Egan

Re. "Editorial: Brown's pension reforms a good starting point," Oct. 30: "Public pensions were created to give public servants a larger stake in their jobs than any bribe could replace."

It's startling to read such a forthright statement in an America where municipal bribery is as uncommon as the word mordida. Yet, most adults understand why this could be true. The source is an expert in public administration, Catherine Burke, an associate professor emerita of public administration at USC, in a Los Angeles Times letter, "Better than a bribe," Oct. 20.

"Public servants are exposed to great temptations, and there are people who would pay to have a police officer avoid a certain place at a certain time," she wrote. "Others are willing to buy off a building inspector. A good pension diminishes the temptation to take dirty money."

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This is the kind of fresh, going-below-the-surface kind of background Newport-Mesa needs if we are to have an informed discussion about compensation of private vis-a-vis public employees.

The Daily Pilot's editorial is itself a good starting point for this discussion. It shows how important it is to be clear about complexities and to watch out for simple answers. As H. L. Mencken observed, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong."

My first concern flows from the Pilot's assertion, "The typical public employee's work is no more special or meaningful than private-sector work, and those who perform it ought to be compensated at market rates as they relate to salaries, retirement, and vacation and sick time."

This statement is too sweeping. The Burke quote about forestalling bribery is a simple example of why at least some public-sector workers should be compensated at a higher rate.

A second concern is that there can be factors that aren't immediately obvious that can differentiate even very common tasks. Take the typical task of mowing lawns, for example. Businesses can outsource this. Some cities can as well. But it's kept in-house by the local school district. There are several reasons for this, but one that's especially pertinent here is the safety issue.

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