At the end of an editorial published Sunday, Feb. 22, under the headline “Keep error in perspective,” the Union-Tribune said, “These numbers are hard and beyond dispute. They are the ones that matter—not the erroneous but ultimately irrelevant ones provided by DeMaio.”
The numbers the U-T says are “beyond dispute” are the estimated $2 billion the city's employee-pension system is short and the $161 million the city of San Diego had to pay into the system this year in order to avoid sinking even further into debt. The numbers the U-T says are “irrelevant” are numbers San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio recently released to the public showing how far out of whack San Diego's employee benefits are when compared with the national average—numbers that U-T reporter Helen Gao later revealed to be flat-out false.
Funny how numbers that are now dismissed as so “irrelevant” were once, not too long ago, used prominently—in a U-T editorial—to show that the City Council is inextricably beholden to the public-employee unions.
“Nationally,” the U-T said on Jan. 18, “the average total cost beyond basic salary of a public employee's fringe benefits—retirement pension payments, health care, worker's compensation plan, etc.—is 34 percent. In San Diego, it is 61 percent. No wonder nearly three-quarters of the city's $1.19 billion budget goes to employee salaries and benefits.”
Doesn't sound like the U-T's editorial board considered the numbers so irrelevant on Jan. 18, when it needed ammunition to shoot at Council President Ben Hueso, who'd just said publicly that a trash-fee increase is on the table.
Turns out DeMaio was comparing apples to basketballs. His 61-percent figure is really just 38 percent. So, while 38 is slightly higher than 34—and San Diego gives its employees a bit better benefits than the average American city—it's not quite as earthshaking as the 27-percent disparity over which DeMaio's hair was ablaze.
But of course the U-T would downplay the mistake—the only other alternatives would be to ignore it altogether or admit that the editorial board's justification for opposing a trash-fee increase was greatly exaggerated, and acknowledging that it's wrong is not a conclusion the U-T editorial board comes to easily.
When pressed on KPBS' Editors Roundtable radio program last Friday morning, Chris Reed, a U-T blogger and editorial writer, acknowledged having written the Jan. 18 editorial, using the same bad information he revealed on his blog on Jan. 7, when he wrote: “Carl DeMaio sent me a memo about the costs of San Diego employees' fringe benefits (retirement pension payments, health care, worker's comp, etc.) compared with the cost of their salaries. After reading it, all I can say is if I have to read one more letter to the editor from a city employee with a poor-poor-pitiful-me tone, I will get sick to my stomach.”
So, it was relevant when the goal was to attack city workers, but not anymore. Interesting.
As for DeMaio, the “studies” he's releasing regularly need to be taken with a grain of salt or, if taken seriously, thoroughly analyzed. DeMaio is a salesman on the outside and an anti-government activist on the inside. While he has an important role to play as a taxpayer advocate, his zeal to make government appear as inefficient and expensive as possible renders him prone to exaggeration and selectivity. Like former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, DeMaio at times contributes valuable insights, but also like Aguirre, DeMaio's tenacity can be alienating—he would do well to ratchet it down a notch.
Strangely, the U-T's Reed says he still thinks DeMaio should have been named chair of the City Council's Budget Committee, even after Reed, on KPBS, said DeMaio should get his numbers right.
No, the Budget Committee chair should be someone who expresses a more sober take on public affairs—someone like Budget Committee Chair Tony Young—and when it comes to its opinions regarding Carl DeMaio and the city unions, the U-T's editorials should be consumed along with a healthy dose of skepticism.
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