California’s public pension crisis is bad and getting worse
A union-backed effort to protect an incumbent on the CalPERS Board of Administration is highlighting four settlements that a Bay Area school district paid six years ago to resolve hostile workplace claims that targeted his opponent.
Digital ads and mailers that promote incumbent Michael Bilbrey draw attention to claims that four San Ramon Valley Unified School District employees filed against his opponent, Margaret Brown.
The district paid at least $1.2 million to settle the claims, according to news accounts from the time and documents obtained by The Bee through the California Public Records Act.
One of the four claims progressed to a lawsuit. A complaint filed by James Faith, a former construction project manager, claimed that Brown created a hostile work environment, harassed male employees and retaliated against him for reporting misconduct. The district paid $350,000 to settle the case in December 2011 without admitting wrongdoing by Brown or other district officials.
In emails, Brown characterized the lawsuit as a “demonstrably false” effort by a former employee to get back his job after he was dismissed from the district.
She did not return phone calls seeking further comment.
About 1.4 million public employees and retirees are eligible to vote by mail, online or by phone in the CalPERS election through Dec. 11. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, a $343 billion fund, is managed by a board of administration that is composed of seven appointed and six elected representatives.
The California School Employees Association, Bilbrey’s union, is using the claims against Brown on its website and in campaign mailers it’s sending on Bilbrey’s behalf.
“We simply can’t afford to trust someone like Brown with the wellbeing of our pension fund,” read CSEA fliers that feature quotes from news stories about the settlements.
Bilbrey said the claims are relevant because “it’s important that we let (CalPERS voters) know and see about Ms. Brown and what her history is.”
Brown, who now works for the Garden Grove Unified School District, is running for CalPERS as a “watchdog.” She’s pledging to look out for retirees by holding staff accountable for the pension fund’s performance. She’s been endorsed by CalPERS board member J.J. Jelincic, California State Retirees and a Riverside County police union that recently has pushed CalPERS to reject divestment policies that could hurt investment returns.
She and Jelincic have been critical of Bilbrey, whom they characterize as overly compliant with recommendations from CalPERS staff.
“CalPERS retirees and workers can no longer afford a ‘go along to get along’ board culture. This culture has turned a well functioning highly effective pension system into one that constantly under-performs the market,” Brown says on her website.
Bilbrey has endorsements from most of the largest state worker unions and nine of the 13 members of the CalPERS Board of Administration. He’s raised $97,500 from unions for his campaign. He said he’s running for another term to follow through on projects he’s pursued over the past few years. “I think I’m just hitting my stride,” he said.
Brown has worked for different school districts since the 1980s. Several employees at San Ramon Unified began filing complaints about her management in 2006, including allegations that she discriminated against men and used inappropriate language at work. Faith, for instance, said in his lawsuit that Brown told him, “you can wear jeans if you have a nice butt.”
The San Ramon school district investigated claims against Brown in 2006 and found that the complaints lacked merit, although the report acknowledged that Brown had been counseled and changed her behavior.
“It is undisputed that Ms. Brown ceased from engaging in the inappropriate behavior that gave rise to your complaint in the first place,” former San Ramon Valley Unified Human Resources Director Roberta Silverstein wrote in an email to one of the complainants that was obtained by a local news website that covers Danville and San Ramon.
Faith filed his lawsuit in July 2010, almost two years after the district dismissed him and four years after he first complained about Brown, according his legal complaint.
In April 2010, the school district settled three related claims by former construction project manager Robbie Lyng, senior project manager Steve Bautista, and former clerical worker Shannon Hendricks. They shared an attorney with Faith and filed similar hostile workplace complaints about Brown, according to news accounts from the time.
The value of those settlements was either $845,000 or $950,000. There are discrepancies in news reports from the period when the district paid the claims. The district and the lawyer who represented the employees could not resolve the differences because they did not retain records from the case, they said.
In statements to news outlets at the time, the district said it settled the claims to avoid the cost of litigation, “with no admission of liability from any of the parties.”
Jeffrey Allen, the attorney who represented the four former employees, declined to comment because the lawsuit is seven years old, and he could not recall details about the case or the claims. The former San Ramon Unified employees who filed claims against the district did not respond to requests for comment.