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Former City workers who turn judges could see pension bump

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Judges who are former employees with San Francisco government are in line for pension boosts under a proposal introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen.

The legislation comes amid a contested election for Superior Court judge following the recently announced retirement of Ernest Goldsmith in which candidates vying for the post include Victor Hwang and Paul Henderson, both of whom once worked in the District Attorney’s Office.

But Cohen said she introduced the legislation in reaction to current sitting judges who have sought the change as far back as October 2014 and “not at all” in response to the upcoming election.

Analysis of the proposal by the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System says it would impact four sitting judges and whoever chooses to take advantage of the change in the future when they go from working for The City to becoming a judge. “The potential impact for an individual can be substantial,” the analysis said.

Currently, SFERS calculates the judges’ pension based on the final highest salaries paid when employed by The City. Under the rule change, the pension calculation would be based on the final pay when judge.

The change is expected to result in an increase in pension costs for the combined four judges of $45,000 annually, from $187,000 to $232,000 “with about two thirds of the impact attributable to one individual.” The report does not identify the “one individual.” Over the lifetime of the benefit, the total cost is expected to increase by $591,000, from $2.4 million to roughly $3 million.

The average increase per judge is $11,250 annually and $147,000 over the lifetime of receiving the pension.

Norm Nickens, an SFERS spokesman, said the agency doesn’t release the names of active members.

But the San Francisco Examiner obtained letters written in November by the three impacted judges to the retirement board asking for the change to honor “reciprocity” among the different pension systems. Judges are covered by the Judges’ Retirement System. The letters are from Danielle Douglas, a Contra Costa Superior Court Judge, Superior Court Judge Harry Dorfman, once a lead homicide prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office, and Superior Court Judge Sharon Reardon. One of the letters identified Therese Stewart, former city chief deputy city attorney who is now a judge in the California Court of Appeals, as the fourth impacted judge.

In a text message, Cohen said she introduced the legislation “because SFERS is the only CA county plan that does not consider compensation earned as a CA judge in its definition of final compensation.”

“This ordinance will conform SFERS’ definition to that of CalPERS and other CA county plans.”

Adding pension costs to The City may seem counterintuitive since it is largely the increase in pension costs driving next year’s projected $100 million budget deficit. And Mayor Ed Lee had in November 2011 passed a ballot measure intended to reduce city pension costs.

But Cohen said any added costs would be minimal. “As indicated in the cost report, estimated benefit increase, if any, as a result of this ordinance would be minor,” she said.

Jay Huish, executive director of SFERS, said in a memo to the Board of Supervisors that “given the small number of members likely to be affected by the proposed ordinance, any additional costs of including JRS and JRSll compensation would be minor.”

It’s unclear how many would benefit from the pension change, but one gauge is what occurred in the past: between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2015, 13 city employees became judges.

Douglas, who once worked as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco, said in a letter that “a person who has spent her entire career as a public servant with the City and County of San Francisco would have a strong incentive to join a different public agency in order to have enhanced benefits before becoming a judge.”

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee is expected to hold a Feb. 25 hearing on the legislation.