By Jay Wolman
As the newest Satyriconista, with a practice of civil litigation and employment law in Boston, I thought I’d begin my first post with something high-brow. Everything sounds better in Latin. This was St. Augustine’s way of saying “Hate the player, not the game”. Fast forward 1500 years and the message remains relevant.
David Madden, the now former mayor of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a small town about a half hour south of Boston, is the player. The public sector pension system is the game. He is getting a lot of flack for manipulating the system to his benefit. Unlike most private sector pensions (union pensions excluded), public sector pension benefits in many jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, are not determined solely by how much the worker contributes to the system (defined contribution), but rather include benefits based on status or job classification (defined benefit). [Yes, pensions are far more complicated than that, but nuance does not matter for this discussion.] It seems that Mayor Madden would make an extra $30k per year by retiring as Fire Chief rather than Mayor. So, Mayor Madden did some nifty maneuvering with the help of his pals: He takes leave from the position of Mayor at the end of his second term, appointing his buddy, the Town Solicitor (i.e. the top lawyer) as interim Mayor. The incumbent Fire Chief takes a voluntary demotion and the Solicitor (now Mayor) appoints Mayor Madden as Fire Chief. Two days later, without showing up to work, Fire Chief Madden retires and puts in for the higher pension. And the Town approves it (the State is fighting it, but has lost in Court so far).
Now, not every Mayor can get away with this–Mr. Madden actually was the Fire Chief before becoming Mayor. He technically took a leave of absence, meaning he had this in the works for eight years. And his buddies go along with it. Sure, it looks bad, but this is the system that was set up and no laws appear to have been broken. I actually feel bad for Mayor Madden; he has to pay legal fees to defend what the law allowed him to do (although I am a lawyer, it is a personal pet peeve that “loser pays” is not the American Rule.) If my fellow Massachusetts residents don’t like what he did, they shouldn’t take it out against Mayor Madden, they should change the rules. Hard to do when the legislators also game the system, but not impossible.
Here’s a thought for my first post as a Satyriconista: eliminate pensions. I’m not saying we renege on current promises, but I’ve wondered why we even have this complicated mess. (I know, they are the result of WWII wage freezes.) As we are no longer at war with the Axis powers, I don’t know anyone who really thinks “Hey, boss, I know I’m doing all this hard work for you now, but I don’t want you to pay me for all of it now. I think it would be great if you held on to a portion so you could give it to me in thirty years. I trust you to handle it more than I trust myself. And I know you’ll pay every penny.”