At the unhappy Santa Clara County Office of Education, fractured over the leadership of Superintendent Xavier De La Torre, pro and con camps are embroiled in a mostly anonymous war of emails.

De La Torre, beginning his second year as the county's top educator, alienated some staff. Detractors say he vindictively targeted layoffs, has stayed aloof from staff and surrounded himself with a small cadre of yes-women.

The superintendent's supporters assail an email from a pseudonymous John Smith last month, advising county office managers on how to create an anonymous email account and providing the personal addresses of the seven board members, De La Torre's bosses.

Peggy Stull, an executive assistant, called the writer a "coward" in an email and asked the board to invite "the rest of us" to speak.

Opponents, for their part, blasted an adoring email sent by De La Torre supporter Nimrat Johal, a director in the business services branch. She praised the superintendent's grace, confidence, humility and "immense knowledge and high intellect," and criticized the COE's history of "living large."

Below Johal's name were 17 other signatures of people who work for her, plus the unsigned, typed names of two others.

One signer told us she had no choice when approached by her boss: "Whatever she wrote, you had to sign."

For their part, members of the county board refused to add a year to De La Torre's four-year contract, indicating they've judged his performance unsatisfactory, have hired a personnel attorney and are still hearing from staff.

'Opt-in' plan still awaits approval from the IRS

As San Jose goes to court this week to defend its voter-approved pension reforms from union lawsuits, another piece of the battle continues to drag on back in the nation's capital. The central battle in court is whether San Jose can make its current employees pay more for their underfunded pension plan -- unions argue that's an illegal breach of their "vested rights."

But a key part of the plan was that the city would also offer its workers an alternative to the higher pension deductions with the choice of a reduced pension benefit for their remaining years on the job. The Internal Revenue Service must certify that this reduced "opt-in" plan meets its requirements for allowing pretax retirement deductions. But more than a year after San Jose voters overwhelmingly passed the pension reforms, the IRS has yet to OK the opt-in plan.

San Jose isn't the only city or county with such a request. Orange County has been waiting five-plus years for an answer. Mayor Chuck Reed, who championed Measure B, has made repeated trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for IRS approval, and has rallied officials in other cities and counties facing similar issues to join in support. Back east last week visiting family during the council summer break, he said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the IRS will act by the end of the year.

City officials have told us privately that the IRS is concerned about schemes to deprive Uncle Sam of tax revenue but that shouldn't be an issue with a reduced plan that would have a smaller pretax deduction.

We couldn't get an answer from the Treasury Department when we called to ask what's holding things up. It took several tries just to get a response at all -- apparently they were still busy heaping scrutiny on tea party groups. We finally got hold of IRS flack Bruce Friedland, who told us -- we're not making this up -- that the revenuers can't talk about certifying San Jose's opt-in retirement plan because it would violate the city's privacy rights as a taxpayer.

'Bossy' judge gets

his question answered

As an experienced public figure, supervisorial candidate Cindy Chavez had little trouble dealing with tough questions from moderator Arthur Weissbrodt at a San Jose Rotary Club debate Wednesday with opponent Teresa Alvarado.

At one point, Weissbrodt, a bankruptcy judge, asked ex-labor leader Chavez about fears that she would be a rubber stamp for unions. She batted that one away by pointing to a couple of examples where she had dissented from labor's position as a councilwoman, including voting to subsidize the nonunion Trader Joe's store at the San Jose MarketCenter.

Then Weissbrodt, noting the BART strike, bore in by asking whether Chavez would ever cross a picket line if county workers went on strike. The candidate initially dodged it by saying that she didn't think strikes should happen -- grown-ups should negotiate instead.

Weissbrodt interrupted her politely but forcefully, saying, "I want you to answer my question.''

"He's very bossy," Chavez responded.

"I am," Weissbrodt replied.

After that, the answer was almost anti-climactic.

"To my knowledge, I have never crossed a picket line," Chavez said. "And I don't foresee a time I would do that."

Is Chavez candidacy

slowing contract talks?

With laborista Cindy Chavez the front-runner in the July 30 Santa Clara County District 2 supervisorial race, are unions sitting on contract talks with the county, hoping her ascension will ensure a better deal?

Union leaders adamantly deny there has been any tactical delay.

But according to one senior county official who asked not to be named, with Chavez on board, employees are betting they'll wind up with a more favorable contract.

Talks are tense, and there are whispers of a strike. The county, deep in debt for employee retirement health insurance and facing a rising pension bill from the state, wants workers to pay more for their benefits.

A proposed ordinance expected to be released to the board in late August would require the county to commit to paying off its $1.8 billion retiree health care debt with $233 million in annual required contributions for 30 years starting in 2018. County officials said they are asking employees during current negotiations for higher contributions, which would likely rise more in the coming years.

Brian O'Neill, a member of the negotiations team for the Santa Clara County chapter of SEIU Local 521, said union members want to resolve their differences with the county as soon as possible, including seeking to restore their salaries to competitive rates.

"We are angry because the county is not showing it wants to be the best county and have the best talent possible," said O'Neill.

Should Chavez be elected to the five-member board of supervisors -- which includes labor-backed allies Ken Yeager and Dave Cortese -- the balance of power on county budgets will continue to tilt toward labor for the foreseeable future. She would replace labor ally George Shirakawa Jr., who resigned in disgrace amid criminal charges.

Internal Affairs is an offbeat look at state and local politics. This week's items were written by Sharon Noguchi, John Woolfolk, Tracy Seipel and Paul Rogers. Send tips to internalaffairs@mercurynews.com, or call 408-975-9346.