DALLAS -- A slick mailer by a group co-chaired by three former mayors has drawn criticism as it claims the group will work to "salvage Dallas' broken pension system."
Called the Taxpayers for a Fair Pension, the new group is co-chaired by Laura Miller, Tom Leppert and Ron Kirk.
They're three people who once had the power to appoint members of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Board. So, how did they do when they had that power?
“They definitely were missing in action,” said Kelly Gottschalk, executive director of the fund.
As the fund comes under a full-court public relations blitz powered by the former mayors, Gottschalk took a look at the attendance record of those appointed by the mayors. She also reviewed whether they even filled all of their positions.
Miller didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the group said she would forward the message to Kirk and Leppert.
Each of them had the power to appoint four members to the board as it stands today.
By far, Miller had the worst record. She served as mayor from 2002 to 2007.
“When you look at the 187 meetings times four people, there was 748 opportunities for them to be at the table,” Gottschalk says. “They were there 52 times.”
For much of Miller's tenure, Gottschalk says Miller didn't even fill two of the four council spots on the 12-member board. The mailer sent out by the group describes "poor and suspicious investment deals," and those, Gottschalk said, coincided with much of Miller's tenure.
“Her hands really aren't clean in this,” Gottschalk said. “If she would have paid more attention during the time where she had a role, we might be in a different position today.”
The mailer also says state law allowed the "pension board to adopt extravagant benefits ... without any control from the city." Gottschalk said much of the really problematic changes occurred during Kirk's time in office. He served as mayor from 1995 to early 2002.
The council members appointed by Kirk “had a very, very poor attendance record,” she said.
And what about Leppert? He served as mayor from 2007 to 2011.
“He didn't appoint any members in '07, and actually neither did Laura Miller,” Gottschalk said. “There was not one person that attended a meeting representing the council in the entirety of 2007.”
When he did appoint board members, Leppert’s appointees did better than those appointed by Kirk or Miller. But records show the attendance was still very poor.
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And now, Miller's husband, former state Rep. Steve Wolens, is representing the four council members who sit on the board in their lawsuit against the pension fund.
Wolens told News 8 he sees no conflict at all.
“I don’t see it,” said Wolens, a member of the Texas Ethics Commission. “I’m pretty familiar with the laws regarding conflicts and I don’t what the conflict is.”
Perhaps, it’s just the optics of it.
Gottschalk’s position is that it just looks strange that “his wife had a role back in the day where she could have made a difference and now she’s coming to a rescue of the city and there’s not a conflict there.”
As the city and the pension fund try to come to an agreement over how to fix the pension’s woes, there were heated words for the former mayors at the pension board meeting.
“It's piss poor management from prior mayors that put us in the situation,” Paul Ellzey, a retired homicide detective, told the board.
The three former mayors are giving their full-throated support to the plan touted by the city to try to save the fund without raising property taxes. That plan involves taking back interest earned by retirees on special investment accounts known as DROP accounts that were created to retain police officers and firefighters.
Gottschalk told retirees at the meeting that State Rep. Dan Flynn, chair of the House Pensions Committee, is suggesting an alternative to the claw back. That would involve turning the balances in DROP accounts into annuities that would be paid out over time.
That didn't sit well either with the retirees.
“I come here today to listen as you discuss how you are going to take the money that I was promised and issue it to me like it’s an allowance,” said Ray Bennett, a retired public safety worker. “I stopped getting an allowance when I was about 15 years old. We need the money now to live on."
The wounds from the filing of council members’ lawsuit against the pension were still fresh Thursday. Retirees very loudly and publicly told the council members on the board what they thought of them and it wasn't good.
Jennifer Gates, one of the four council members, reacted emotionally to the criticism. She said what she has found during her short tenure on the board is that “this group would rather keep people silent.” Gates was particularly incensed by a proposed resolution that’s circulating that calls upon the public safety employee associations to pledge that they would have a “lifetime ban” from support from those member organizations.
“We didn’t want to do it,” Gates said. “We didn’t take it lightly ... Bully me, hate me. I did what I thought was best.”
There's no doubt the situation is dire. Without changes, the pension fund is slated to go broke in 2027.
But Gottschalk and others believes the former mayors have some culpability in it, too.
“They weren't paying attention and now they're saying, the city's saying, they did everything they should have done,” Gottschalk said. “Well they should have been at the table.”
Could those mayors if they had appointed council members who actually attended have sounded the alarm before it was too late? That one we will never know the answer to.
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