- No other elected official in Ventura County also receives a county pension.
- The Ventura County Taxpayers Association sees a problem with drawing a pension and a salary.
- Sheriff Jim Fryhoff’s predecessor went the opposite way.
After Jim Fryhoff was elected Ventura County sheriff last year, he officially retired from his job as chief of the sheriff’s office before taking his new position as head of the department. That allowed him to begin drawing a $180,000-a-year county pension on top of his sheriff’s salary of $332,000.
The move is legal and Ventura County’s taxpayer watchdog group says it’s not improper. If Fryhoff had not done so, he would have had to wait to receive his pension until he leaves his position as sheriff, but the pension would then be much larger, perhaps as much as $300,000 a year.
But the fact that he draws a pension and salary from the same employer that add up to more than $500,000 a year has raised some eyebrows. Joe Nation, a professor of public policy at Stanford University and a former Democratic member of the California Assembly, said this is the type of “double dipping” that former Gov. Jerry Brown tried to eliminate in 2013 when he signed the Pension Reform Act. .
“If you were to ask 100 people out there, ‘Is it OK?’, I think 85 of them would say no,” Nation said. “If you’re retired, you have to be retired. You don’t have to make $500,000 a year.”
Fryhoff said that after he was elected, the Ventura County Employees Retirement Association — the agency that oversees the county’s pension fund and pays benefits — sent him a form asking if he wanted to retire before taking office.
Retiring meant he could start drawing his pension, but it also meant he stopped earning a pension. When he leaves office as sheriff, he will keep the same pension he has now, based on his 32 years with the department before being elected and his final salary of about $243,000 as commander. If he had decided not to retire, his pension would be based on his years of service when he leaves office as sheriff and his salary as sheriff.
“I was forced to make a decision and I made one,” said Fryhoff, who is 52. “I’m taking less money long term and more money now.”
David Grau, the president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, said his group doesn’t see a problem with Fryhoff drawing a pension and a salary.
“Our view is that it is the system as it is and the sheriff worked more than 32 years and he earned that pension,” Grau said.
Nation was more critical of the arrangement, but he does not blame Fryhoff either.
“Can you blame someone who says, ‘Wait a minute, the system allows me to do something I think is pretty cool. The system allows me to retire and make a lot of money’?” Nation said. “You can’t blame individuals for that. The people you have to blame are the ones who set up the system.”
An exception to the pension reform efforts
Under the pension reforms from 2013, civil servants cannot normally draw both pension and salary from the same public authority. However, they can retire from one government agency and go to work for another without giving up their pensions, as long as the two agencies have different pension systems.
In California, state employees and employees of most cities and special government districts receive their pensions through CalPERs, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Ventura County, and most of the other large counties in the state, have their own pension systems, such as VCERA.
A state employee with a CalPERS pension can work for the County of Ventura without giving up their state pension and vice versa. But retirees from a state government job cannot collect their pension while working at another state job or a job for another agency that is a member of CalPERS, such as a city government. And a Ventura County retiree usually cannot go back to work at another county job and still collect their VCERA pension.
Elected representatives like Fryhoff are the exception. In 2017, Brown signed a budget bill that included a provision “clarifying” that a member of a county pension system could hold an elected office as sheriff and still receive a pension as long as the person stopped earning additional pension benefits.
Sean McMorris, a program manager for the good government nonprofit California Common Cause, said he believes the law was based on a similar provision for elected officials in cities and school districts. In those cases, the positions chosen are part-time and provide a relatively small stipend rather than a full-time salary.
“Usually if you get elected to a city council, you don’t get paid that much. It might be $1,000 a month,” McMorris said. “So in that case, you don’t want to take anybody’s pension for that.”
But the position of county clerk is a full-time job that pays well, and it allows county officials to earn large salaries and pensions at the same time. It’s something that’s possible in other elected positions, but it’s most likely to occur in law enforcement, where retirement ages are lower and pensions are more generous. No other elected officials in Ventura County also receive a county pension, according to VCERA.
“It looks like double diving, but I don’t see how you would get around it,” McMorris said. “Someone who’s going to take on that role has probably worked in the department for a long time, so they should have a pension… It’s legal, but perception-wise it doesn’t necessarily look good.”
Fryhoff’s predecessor, Bill Ayub, went the opposite way. When he became sheriff in 2018, he chose to wait for his retirement. He began drawing it this year when he left office, at about $248,000 a year, according to VCERA.
That’s the best outcome for taxpayers, said David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association. The nonprofit advocates for lower taxes and government efficiency statewide and is not affiliated with the Ventura County Taxpayers Association.
“Ideally, (Fryhoff) would do what the previous sheriffs have done and just take the increased pay for being elected sheriff without also retiring, but that seems to be within the letter of the law and the voters can ultimately end up deciding if they would prefer to elect someone else as sheriff,” Kline said.
Tony Biasotti is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation’s Fund to Support Local Journalism.