News - July 7, 2010

Pension reform group seeks funds for legal defense

by Renee Batti

The grassroots group that sponsored the Menlo Park pension reform initiative is trying to raise at least $35,000 in private donations to defend the initiative after two public employee unions mounted a legal challenge to keep it off the November ballot.

The lawsuit was filed June 23, naming the city of Menlo Park, which put the initiative on the November ballot after the citizens' group gathered the needed signatures; and resident Ned Moritz, treasurer of the initiative's sponsor, Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform.

In a message sent out to an e-mail list on June 28, Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform wrote that, given the City Council's "tepid response" when it met in closed session June 25 about how to deal with the lawsuit, the group must assume "that if a vigorous defense (of the initiative) is to be made, we must mount it."

The council made no decision on how to address the complaints in the lawsuit, but asked the city attorney for more analysis, which it will review in July.

The group, co-chaired by residents Henry Riggs and Roy Thiele Sardina, is committed to "upholding the rights" of the residents who signed the petition to put the initiative on the ballot, and "demonstrate that we cannot be intimidated by this spurious union attempt to silence us," the e-mail said.

The initiative would increase the retirement age for new, non-police employees from 55 to 60 years of age, and would also decrease the pension payments those employees receive.

The lawsuit was filed by the Service Employees International Union Local 521 (SEIU) and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 829 (AFSCME), asserting that the initiative put illegal practices into place in setting public employee compensation. State law gives that authority to the City Council, the lawsuit maintains.

Menlo Park resident Katy Rose is also a plaintiff in the suit.

The Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform e-mail said: "An initial review of the lawsuit by legal counsel leaves us with a positive feeling. It would appear that the lawsuit has been drafted with serious flaws and based on weak premises.

Last week, Mr. Riggs and others from the group urged the City Council, before its closed session, to be involved in the defense of the initiative.

Mr. Riggs told The Almanac that the group would offer to supply legal support that would coordinate with the city attorney, but that the city should be willing to provide a "vigorous defense" of the measure.

City Attorney Bill McClure said that the plaintiffs had to name the city as a defendant in the lawsuit because the measure will be voted on in a city election. But, he added, the council had only two options under state law when presented with the validated petition: adopt the initiative as law or put it on the ballot. Sending it to the ballot didn't make the city an advocate, he noted.

"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, Mr. McClure told The Almanac.


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