Straight Talk with Former Councilman Bill Sutherland
While serving on the City Council Bill Sutherland’s off-the-cuff speaking style endeared him to many residents and earned him a reputation for straight talk. Some may not agree with his “say it like it is” approach, but with Bill at least you know where you stand.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the former councilman for an interview. True to form, Bill held nothing back sharing his feelings on a wide variety of topics including the past election and the future outlook for the City of Torrance. I found the conversation captured below honest and refreshing. I left the engagement with a new found appreciation for the man that has played such an important role in shaping the City over the past several decades.
Q. Do you miss being on Council?
A. I miss it greatly. I like having a say in what happens in the City. When I made a decision I tried to consider Torrance, I didn’t consider me. I even voted a couple of times against what I wanted because I knew it was what the City wanted – especially on the Hillside Overlay. I turned down some projects that I thought would be improvements, but the people that lived there didn’t and my job is not to consider what helps me but what helps them. It’s nice because you’re helping people. Sometimes you do have to make a decision that hurts somebody because it’s for the betterment of the City and that doesn’t bother me. Some people did get bothered by that. In business, sometimes I had to fire people. That never bothered me because they deserved it. If they were good employees that I had to lay off, that’s a different story. Yeah, I enjoyed it. Can’t say I didn’t.
Q. Shortly after the election you were quoted in the Daily Breeze as saying, “The unions have all the power” and “I’m all in favor of unions, but they shouldn’t run the city.” Do the unions run the City?
A. The unions have a lot of power. They have more power than the Council has. You can’t do anything without them signing off on it. Do I feel they have more power now than in the past? Yes.
Q. Is that a negative thing for the City of Torrance?
A. Yes, if you are a union, why do you support me? You’re going to get more money on a wage or you are going to get higher benefits. Unions should not be having an input on City business. Perfect example is at one point we had to make a lot of budget cuts and there was something like 15 hazmat employees. These positions were fireman that received a 13% premium. We had to cut that down but we still had to pay 9 of them that 13% premium until they retired even though they couldn’t do their job anymore. Now it may not sound like much, but at a salary of $100K+ a year that’s at least $13K a year per fireman for doing nothing and that lasted anywhere from a year for like 6 years. It’s a waste of money. That would have paid a wage. That’s why government can’t do business. A business couldn’t exist like that.
I do feel the unions are getting too much. They will disagree with me of course, but there is not an hourly employee that will make the same in private industry in wages and benefits as they do working for the City. Custodians, for example, start out at about $14 an hour with many paid holidays and great benefits. They won’t get that working for some large company.
Q. What about pensions?
A. It’s out of hand, but it’s getting better. The City is making new employees pay a portion, but it’s only a portion. You can’t have a defined pension nowadays. It’s just too expensive. Private industry has moved to 401K’s. There is no guarantee to that money. If the market collapses the 401K collapses. And that is how the City should be. We’ll put in so much money, and if the market collapses you lose. Now, if CalPERS doesn’t do well we would have to raise everybody’s taxes so employees can get it back. You can’t do that.
I worked for the school district until prop 13. Back then they figured your salary was about 11% less than what you could get in private industry because the benefits were better. I thought that was fair. Now public salaries are more than what you can get on the outside. You gotta give up something for all the benefits.
Q. What should be done about pensions? Will they have to make changes?
A. Should they? Yes. Do they have to? No, they could maybe get by. One thing we should do is stop paying Social Security. We are one of the few cities that still pays it. When you are talking that 80% of your budget is wages then any changes add up. The unions will never go for that. One of the biggest complaints from police and fire is they can’t get Social Security. Of course when you are retiring at $120K+ a year pension, do you really need Social Security? Yes, more changes should be made.
Realistically, I think a 50% retirement is fantastic. Nobody in private industry gives you a 90% to 80% retirement. Nowadays people are collecting that retirement for 30 years on average. It used to be you retired at 65 and maybe lived another 10 years. Police and fire used to say average life expectancy was 10 years after they retired. Now, they live to 85 or 90. Because of that police and fire are collecting way more money in retirement than they made while working. How can that exist? It can’t. Something has to be done.
It appears though that they will carry on with what they have in place until they have another financial crisis. It takes a financial crisis to get something accomplished with the unions.
Q. What about tax increases to help alleviate the pension burden? Is that something the Council has considered?
A. I’ve not heard that. Brewer accused me of that. He lied about it in a mailer. Brewer got that from a statement I made in a forum. I said that if we had to hire another 10 to 15 officers due to increased crime from AB 109, that I would support a quarter percent sales tax increase to hire more officers. Brewer and his campaign consultants turned that into that I would increase sales tax to pay off the pensions. There is a big difference between hiring more people and paying off pensions. I would fight that immensely. I’m not going to pay more taxes so you can have a better pension. I’ll pay more taxes so I can have more police, fire, and other city employees. That was Brewer’s lie. I got so mad at him when I read that mailer.
Q. Are you still mad at Brewer?
A. Yes, I stuck up for him and helped him so many times. We had been serving together for nearly 20 years and when him and Pat were mad at each other I always tried to get in-between and ensure they didn’t go head to head and then he back-stabbed me. I’ll put up with a lot of stuff from you. You can call me an asshole to my face and I’ll put up with that. But you lie about me as a friend. I’m sorry, are you my friend? Are you my friend if you do that? That race meant more to him than being honest and having a friend. To me, it didn’t. I would have rather lost the race than to have lied about something. I have to live with myself the rest of my life. I’m not a perfect person. I’ve done things that I shouldn’t have, but I don’t purposely do things that I shouldn’t.
Q. Anything else from the campaign that still bothers you?
A. The McCormick deal left a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, it was legal. Not ethical, but legal. I’m also upset that TFD gave McCormick $15K. There was more of a reason to give the contract to McCormick than meets the eye.
Q. You have appeared before Council and spoken about the McCormick deal twice now. Why?
Gerber is gone. I understand that. But right is right. Wrong is wrong. I knew they were going to say the response times were being evaluated equally, but I know that’s not true. I’ve seen McCormick with their lights and sirens on. Two of them park on Carson and Crenshaw and they turn their lights and sirens on to turn left because traffic is so backed up. I don’t mind them doing that, but to do it and still not meet the response times and then to say they are being evaluated equally is terrible.
Rizzo is my friend. But he said he didn’t want Gerber because they didn’t meet the response times and said they were putting lives at stake, but the first thing he says about McCormick is that maybe the response times aren’t realistic and that we should increase them. Is that a big donation going to his account? I don’t think so, I really don’t think so. But to the public and this is what I always had to be careful of, when we do stuff we have to be consistent. Now if he would have said, we got rid of Gerber for not meeting response times, why don’t we get rid of you [McCormick]? You have to be consistent.
I got my ass chewed a lot about it but I was consistent. For example, I’m against a two story addition with maybe just a couple of exceptions. I’m against it because that is the purpose of the Hillside overlay ordinance, and I got my ass chewed. And I said, I don’t care, that’s what I believe. That’s the purpose of the Hillside Overlay to keep the builder’s down. And you know that before you buy in there. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.
Q. What do you see for the future of Torrance?
A. This City will always go in a good direction. It’s not a corrupt City, it’s not an ill managed City. It’s a well managed City. I see people comment on Toyota for example that nobody has made any offers on the property. Well, you have to remember the place doesn’t even go for sale for two more years. There can’t be any offers on that yet. The City is working on that. Toyota is working on that. I’ve heard some good possibilities that are unbelievable. But to say nothing is definite yet, of course not.
If you’re against somebody all you do is look for negatives and if you’re for somebody all you do is find the positives. This is a darn good City. It’s run well. It’s always had a fair Council. Some Council’s are fairer than others, but you’ve never had a City of Carson Council. Hope you don’t plan on moving to Carson. I’m happy with Torrance.
Q. Any plans to run for office again in Torrance?
A. No, not in Torrance, but what I would like is to run for a position on the West Basin Municipal Water District. Stuff happening on that Board is either stupid or criminal, take your pick. I think I may run for that office.
Q. Do you endorse anyone for the 2016 Council election?
A. I don’t know who I will endorse yet as we don’t know everyone that might be running. Most likely, I am going to endorse Mike Griffiths and probably Rizzo as incumbents. What you don’t want is three new members on the Council.
Q. Are you partial to either of the other two candidates running?
A. I nominated Milton Herring at one point to a Council appointment when Heidi Ashcraft ended up with the position. He’s a good guy. But I don’t know who else is going to run between now and then. I assume there will at least be a couple more.
Q. It’s been rumored that City Manager LeRoy Jackson will retire soon. Thoughts on who will replace him?
A. We are fortunate Jackson is still there. He is there for the City. He has turned down raises that would amount to as much as $25K a year and could probably make more money retired. I only see one or two people in the City that could replace him. John Neu, the former police chief was one of them, but he retired.
Q. Would you support Mayor Furey if he was up for re-election?
A. Probably, but I don’t know who would run against him. Seldom do people run against a sitting mayor. He is a friend of mine. Still is. We talk. Do I like everything he has done? No. Would he like everything I would have done? No. One thing people don’t realize is that before we make a decision as a Councilmember that we have so much more information than you do. It may look from the outside that it should have been a yes or no, but when you get all the information it changes your perspective.
Q. Any final thoughts?
A. When you read the blogs, everyone is thinking the City is going to Hell in a handbasket. That’s not right. The City is in good shape financially. It could be better, but it’s a good City. The biggest thing for everybody is to get involved. I don’t mean you have to go to every council meeting, but pay attention.
Author’s Note: Subsequent to my interview with former Councilman Sutherland, I reached out to Former Councilman Brewer to ask if he wanted to respond to the comments about him related above. Former Councilman Brewer provided the following response:
“My campaign did send out a mailer late in the mayoral campaign that misrepresented Bill’s statements about pensions. This mailer was a first draft prepared for me by my campaign and not the intended final version that followed my corrections and approval. Although the original draft was printed and mailed in error, it was my campaign and I take full responsibility for the mistake. I have apologized to Bill many times over the past year. I have offered to show anyone interested the paper trail of the mailer to illustrate that my intention was not to include the improper statement. At least three people have seen the final proof that I signed off on. I understand Bill’s feelings and I deeply regret the error. As Bill said we did serve together for 20 years and he did stand up for me during some tough times during a prior administration and I will always be grateful for his support.”