After that, the court can decide if the action filed against the city and an initiative-group organizer has merit, then decide whether to throw out the election results if the measure passes. The unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), claim the measure violates key sections of the California Constitution and other state law by allowing voters — not the City Council — to determine employee pension benefits.
The initiative would increase the retirement age for new, non-safety employees from 55 to 60, and would also decrease the pension payments those employees receive. If the initiative is approved, as expected, it would represent a significant rollback in benefits for incoming Menlo Park workers.
So it is no surprise that the two unions, which represent the majority of Menlo Park's non-police employees, see the initiative as a significant threat, and are willing to mount a strong legal action to overturn it. At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, union members claimed the initiative was illegal and misguided, adding that the organizers are using the poor economy to take fair compensation away from the city's employees.
Now the Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform, the leaders of the initiative effort, are asking city officials to mount a vigorous defense of the initiative, although so far neither the council nor City Attorney Bill McClure seem eager to join the fight. At a closed-session meeting June 25 called to discuss the matter, the council took no action, although it did ask Mr. McClure for more legal analysis about the litigation.
Mr. McClure said that the plaintiffs (the unions) in the lawsuit had to name the city as a defendant because the measure will be voted on in a city election. But, he said, the council had only two options under state law when presented with a validated petition: adopt the initiative as law or put it on the ballot. Sending it to the ballot did not make the city an advocate of the initiative, he said.
Mr. McClure offered one possible scenario for the City Council: "The city could take a position that we will abide by the decision of the court ... saying, since it wasn't our choice (to introduce the measure), we will not expend the time creating legal arguments, and spending tens of thousands of dollars" defending the pension-initiative group's position.
We agree. In this case, it is the responsibility of those who filed the petitions to see the case through the legal process, rather than burden the city with the legal costs. Some donations already have been made to a legal defense fund, and we urge other supporters to help out. At this point, there is no telling whether the case will be difficult to square with state law, or how long it will take to wind its way through the court system. But one thing is certain: The courts should not acquiesce to the union's effort to take the initiative off the November ballot. Menlo Park voters should be able to make their views known on this issue.