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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Peter Carpenter's mission: warn of employee-benefit 'time bomb'

Uploaded: Dec 20, 2011

Every week I get two or three e-mails from Peter Carpenter drumming in a single message: that retirement costs/benefits for public employees are threatening to bankrupt cities, counties, special districts and California itself -- maybe even America.

I recently sat down with him to ask a single basic question: Has he gone over the edge on this seemingly obsessive topic?

He laughed and said not really. But he grows serious as he warms to the subject.

"It's a huge time bomb," he says of the mostly unfunded retirement benefits, now reportedly in the hundreds of billions of dollars statewide.

As for his e-mails, he said he just has a good search program and simply forwards articles from newspapers and magazines as well as programs and reports on the subject. Carpenter said it takes him just moments to glance over an article then send it out to his e-mail list, currently at about 80 recipients -- nearly half of whom are public officials. But after nearly five years of the e-mail blitz he is disappointed that officials have been slow in picking up on the message. Union leaders seem not to have heard it at all, and are engaged in rear-guard actions to forestall cutbacks in present or future benefit packages.

Most e-mail attachments carry dire predictions; some report on drastic measures specific public agencies are taking or considering, including literal bankruptcy as in Vallejo, a side effect of which was wiping out retirement agreements.

Carpenter's message is that in the flush years of the past couple of decades, off and on, agencies promised more than they could deliver in terms of retirement benefits (sometime lavishly so) when negotiating with unions and employee groups. No surprise. It's the American Way, reflecting a pay-later credit-card mentality that drives so much of the economy and the personal/family lives of many millions of us.

Leaner times mean limits. Still, going back to renegotiate past deals is tough for elected officials and administrators, especially in areas where unions have big political clout.

Yet Carpenter's personal and professional interests go far beyond retirement benefits. They range from a decades-long interest in "mission and values" concerns to implementing high-tech communications systems in corporate and community institutions. He is personally engaged in a major community-building project in Africa, and occasionally is a fierce advocate of open meetings of government agencies at all levels, as codified in the state's Ralph M. Brown Act.

He may have inherited from his family some of his "transparency" interests. An uncle, Richard "Bud" Carpenter, then a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, decades back did a 10-part series on closed-door meetings that became an important motivation for the Brown Act.

Today, Carpenter fears the act has been weakened "because nobody is enforcing it." But "it's great virtue is what a good DA can do" in setting a standard of transparency, creating a public culture of openness in the conduct of public business. An example is the recent undoing of election of mayor in Menlo Park due to too many private discussions among council members.

Carpenter's varied background reflects his range of interests. Born in 1940 in San Francisco, he spent his early teens in Jacksonville, Fla., in the Deep South -- "about as deep redneck as you can get" with extreme segregation and whites-only beaches.

His parents had a rule: Family members "could never talk about a group, only about individuals. It was one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me." They also enforced mandatory family dinners together with real conversations, often about issues and politics as well as family matters.

Two lifelong values they promoted were (1) "You will have a job," and (2) "You will be involved in the community."

Carpenter questions the importance people today put on going to college. He favors a national-service alternative for many young persons.

"Education for what?" he asks, citing huge student-loan debts and frustrating job searches even for college grads. Carpenter himself went to Harvard, where he joined the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) and wound up in the Air Force during the late 1960s.

"Those were the most exciting six years of my life," he recalls. The stint included three years (1966-1969) working with the computer-networking project ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (later the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) that was the predecessor of many aspects of Internet as we know it today. Most of the ARPA work related to Vietnam War, he said.

He held various federal positions in the early 1970s and from 1973 to 1976 served as assistant vice president for medical affairs at Stanford University, including a year as executive director of the Stanford Medical Center.

When he joined the Palo Alto-based ALZA Corporation in 1976 "one of the first things I did was network ALZA," he recalls, drawing on his ARPA experience. He served in various capacities, including vice president and executive vice president for corporate strategy. He retired from ALZA in 1990 but consulted on mission-and-values issues for two more years.

He has served on numerous community boards and advisory boards, and currently is in his second stint on the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which covers Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and parts of unincorporated San Mateo County. (See his C.V. for his complete background here .)

He is proud of the fire district's transparency and its requirement that labor-negotiation results must be public for 15 days before the board can vote to adopt them.

It was his first term on the fire-district board in 2003 that alerted him to the retirement time bomb. He and other board members voted to support a 3 percent retirement at age 50 rather than the earlier 2.5 percent at 55 -- similar to what then-Governor Gray Davis granted state prison guards.

CalPERS, the state retirement board, "was making so much on its investments that we voted for it," Carpenter recalls of the days before the bottom fell out of the economy.

"It was the dumbest thing I ever did," he says now. "We didn't have to account for unfunded liabilities."

Other public-safety employees got similar boosts, partly in lieu of immediate salary increases and because of generally lower pay. But over the past decade or so public-safety pay caught up and began to surpass the median income of taxpayers in many communities, Carpenter said.

The district and its firefighters locked horns on pay and benefits in 2008, when the union said it wanted an 11 percent raise. For 2 1/2 years there has been no new contract agreement. Under the official state-declared impasse the district can impose a new contract.

The trend overall is to push for a so-called two-tiered system, with new employees getting a lower level of benefits than existing employees.

In the big picture, Carpenter feels his e-mail campaign "has made a very minor dent" by raising awareness of some local officials. But the pay-and-benefits matter has national implications, and a fairness aspect.

"We pay our firefighters more than we pay Navy Seals. We pay the average firefighter more than we pay the colonel who flies Air Force One."

NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a cc: to jaythor@well.com.