Our executive editor at KALW News, Ben Trefny has been making his way through San Francisco’s mayoral pool and had this sit-down with candidate and current Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Adachi, currently one of the few elected public defenders in the country, has taken up the mantle of pe
nsion reform–earning him the ire of the city’s law enforcement unions. Why does Adachi want to become mayor? The pension issue is high among the reasons, but there are others. Listen to KALW’s interview above. (Transcript after the jump.)
BEN TREFNY: Tell us about your neighborhood, Jeff.
JEFF ADACHI: I live on the west side of town. I’ve lived there for about 10 years with my wife and daughter. It reminds me a lot of the neighborhood I grew up in because we had a lot of neighbors next door, a lot of kids running around parks, a lot of trees. So, we’re very happy there.
TREFNY: Tell me about your role as public defender and what you’ve learned about human nature and about the way the city deals with people in that role.
ADACHI: Well, being the public defender is really a fascinating job. We’re really at the crossroads of all we see in society, whether it’s homelessness, wayward youth – you name it, we see it all. So from my vantage point of a problem-solver, I’ve been able to look at the question of how to help people who are coming back home after being in prison. I’ve been able to look at what their needs are. That’s a challenged population that doesn’t have jobs or skills. I’ve created programs to turn their lives around. One of the programs, the Clean Slate program, clears people’s records so that they’re able to get back to work. I went even farther and created a social worker unit within our office that links returning prisoners with services.
So these are the kinds of things that have proven very effective. I look forward to applying what I’ve learned to the bigger problems of city government.
TREFNY: So if you were mayor, you would not only be wearing the public defender hat, but you’d also be overseeing the police department, the city attorney, and all these other positions. So how would you deal with criminal justice? How would things look different under an Adachi administration?
ADACHI: Well, I’m a reformer. To me, what that means is that, we, in the criminal justice administration, have to operate with the highest level of integrity. In the criminal justice system, everything comes down to following the rules. So this applies whether you’re a police officer, a defense attorney, or a judge. So what I would do as mayor, is I would make sure that all departments work together with the same value system. That value system is ensuring people get justice at the end of the day, whether you’re a victim of a crime, whether you’re accused, whether you’re a police officer. I know a lot of people in the criminal justice system. I’ve been working in it for 25 years. I think it would be a great thing in this city to have someone who truly understands criminal justice.
TREFNY: So you call yourself a reformer. You say you want to bring all these different criminal justice elements and presumably the entire city under tight watch, to make sure everybody is doing the job correctly. Are there people who are not doing the job correctly under your estimation?
ADACHI: San Francisco is a progressive city. I’ve been in the field of justice my whole life. What we also need, though, is fiscal accountability. That’s what I would bring. I’ve spent the last two years working on this issue of pension reform. Let me tell you, it’s a difficult issue. Why? Because people didn’t want to see a change. We’re spending about $500 million this year on retired city employees. That number’s going to go up to about $800 million, according to the controller, in the next three or four years. So when you have these pension costs that are increasing by about a hundred million a year, that means substantial cuts in basic services. Did you know our park’s budget was cut by 50%?
TREFNY: I’ve seen that. I live by Golden Gate Park. There’s much fewer gardeners there.
ADACHI: And you’ve seen the conditions of our streets. They spend about $40 million a year fixing our streets out of a $6 billion budget, and we put 10 times that on pension costs. This is an issue someone had to take on. I took it on. I’ve been working on it for the past two years. I have a proposition – Proposition D. It’s fair. It apportions the cost to employees, the city, and taxpayers. Most importantly, it saves $1.7 billion over 10 years.
TREFNY: So, the pension reform proposition recently failed. You’ve brought up a new version of that. You’ve gotten tremendous opposition to that. Unions came out very vocally against it, saying that you were trying to kill pensions and their future security. To those people who are really concerned about their retirement and what your proposition would do for them, what do you say?
ADACHI: First of all, Proposition D doesn’t take away any one’s pensions. If you saw someone’s house burning down, would you do something about it? Absolutely. The same thing is happening with our pensions. There are cities now that aren’t able to pay their pension obligations. At the same time in San Francisco until last year, half of city employees weren’t even contributing towards their pensions. Last year we had a police officer, not even the police chief, who earned $516,000 a year and retired with $240,000 a year.
TREFNY: But individuals are concerned. All these unions are speaking out against it. The people who make $500,000 a year are obviously safe. But what would the people who make only five digits, who have been counting on this to go into retirement at some point? They’re scared.
ADACHI: Our plan will ensure that those pensions are honored. This is about sustainability. If you have a system that is ultimately going to bankrupt the city, or ultimately ensure that pensions are not paid, we have unfunded liability in our pension plans. That means that we won’t have enough money to pay the obligations that we owe. So what happens 10 or 15 years ago when we have no money for the person who wants to retire? That’s what’s going to happen. That’s why this is called a “Pension Tsunami.” The grand jury has done several reports on this and it’s crystal clear that, unless we fix this problem, there’s going to be tremendous pain. It would be insane to look at this problem and not deal with it.
TREFNY: So, give me the one minute pitch for why you should be mayor of San Francisco.
ADACHI: San Francisco needs change. There’s a reason why things are the way they are. Again, if you’re happy with the status quo, don’t vote for Jeff Adachi. From the very day I got involved in civic matters, I’ve been about social justice, making sure people are treated fairly, and, at the end of the day, it comes down to the average people of San Francisco. I’ve been the public defender for nine years. I want to be the defender of all the people in this city, and to make sure that everyone is at the table, that people’s voices are heard, that they have a voice in government. And most importantly, I want to make sure people have a mayor based on what’s best for them, not what’s best for themselves.