Public Service Should Be a Noble Calling, Not a Road to Riches

By John Moorlach
John Moorlach
John Moorlach
John Moorlach is a former Orange County Supervisor who most recently served as a state senator. He previously spent 12 years as Orange County’s Treasurer-Tax Collector, and led the county out of bankruptcy.
August 10, 2021 Updated: August 11, 2021

Commentary

There should be something noble about public service. Instead, many have seen it as their road to riches.

The city of Bell, California, has become legendary for fiscal abuse. If a defined pension benefit formula (as high as 90 percent) is based on one’s final year of salary, then why not inflate or spike that amount to obtain a lifetime of annual income greater than one earned while working? Former City Manager Robert Rizzo padded his annual salary to nearly one million dollars per year. His salary was paid out of various city funds, thus eluding the notice of independent outside auditors. It all ended after he pled no contest to corruption charges in 2013.

In the neighboring city of Maywood, the former mayor, Ramon Medina, was charged earlier this year in a 34-count criminal complaint that alleged misappropriation of public funds, soliciting and receiving bribes, and embezzlement over a three-year period.

The private sector is obviously not the only part of society that’s susceptible to greed. The public sector is also vulnerable to financial abuse. It’s the only industry where employees can select their elected bosses through massive campaign contributions. It’s an employer that will supposedly last forever; when the money runs dry, simply raise sales taxes.

Perhaps no city in Orange County has played out this tragic nonsense more than Santa Ana. Its Police Officers Association (POA) union boss has displayed a lack of propriety in full view. The recent allegations concerning Gerry Serrano are incredible.

The Orange County Register opened a recent article with the following paragraph:

“Santa Ana police union boss Gerry Serrano is pressuring city officials to spike his pension by giving him another job atop his association position—demanding he be hired as deputy city manager or human relations director, according to city documents released this week.”

The Voice of OC, an internet news provider that has received funding from public employee unions, opened its story with the following paragraph:

“Santa Ana’s powerful police union president Gerry Serrano has city officials scrambling to defend themselves against what they term as an effort to ‘burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.'”

It’s not uncommon for a police officer to get elected to the POA’s union board. Should he or she get elected to be POA president, then the employer may allow for a relief of duty from the force, to work full time for the POA at their normal salary and benefits. This is also true for the County of Orange, where the president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs gets to enjoy a desk job with a nicely furnished office and secretarial staff. It’s not a bad gig if one can get it.

Yet instead of being a professional negotiator between the POA and the city manager, human resources manager, and the city council, Serrano appears to have become a “powerful” union boss and even earned a reputation as such. It’s amazing what considerable campaign funds at one’s disposal can do.

Recently he targeted a city councilwoman who was one of two councilmembers who voted against the POA’s recent request for raises, with the other five in support. An expensive recall campaign to remove Cecilia Iglesias was successful in May 2020. Do you think this sent a message to the other city councilmembers? “Give us what we want or you’re out” came through loud and clear. Perhaps Serrano is already the city’s de facto “deputy city manager.”

Making no doubt about who really runs the city of Santa Ana, this month Serrano went after the city’s chief of police. Cities need an independent professional manager at the top of the police department who can honestly assess the department’s budget and capabilities of personnel and equipment.

The most recent Orange County Register piece on Serrano and this effort starts with the following paragraph:

“The powerful Santa Ana police union is asking officers to cast a vote of no confidence against Chief David Valentin, who said this week that he has been the ‘target of a personal and political attack.'”

If the POA was an exemplary union contributing to the overall success of Santa Ana, one could admire these strong-arm tactics. But it’s not. Out of 34 cities in Orange County, Santa Ana has been in the bottom five from a fiscal standpoint for at least the last four years. In order to survive financially, the city outsourced its fire department to the Orange County Fire Authority in 2012.

Santa Ana’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for June 30, 2020, shows an unrestricted net deficit of $535,086,342. That’s half a billion dollars upside down! Except for recent federal relief funds, there’s no money for raises or pension spiking. If every resident had to chip in to pay this debt off, it would cost them $1,600 each!

If you want your city to be in financial bondage, then maybe it should hire someone like Gerry Serrano to run its public employee unions. The sad truth is, Santa Ana is not alone. Your city may have similar union leaders. That’s why your vote matters and why every Orange County city needs more fiscally prudent councilmembers like Cecilia Iglesias. Otherwise, cities will need to hire bankruptcy attorneys to come in and clean up the mess.

In Santa Ana’s case, the city council needs to wake up, stop being beholden to the POA, and stop the journey down the proverbial road toward becoming the next city of Bell or Maywood. Please.

John Moorlach
John Moorlach
John Moorlach is a former Orange County Supervisor who most recently served as a state senator. He previously spent 12 years as Orange County’s Treasurer-Tax Collector, and led the county out of bankruptcy.