Almanac

News - September 8, 2010

Court's ruling re-energizes pension reform advocates

by Sandy Brundage

The November elections in Menlo Park will give voters a chance to decide whether the pension initiative, called Measure L on the ballot, should pass.

A judge ruled on Aug. 27 that the initiative will remain on the ballot, despite a lawsuit filed to stop it.

Measure L seeks to set a retirement age for new, non-police public employees at 60 (five years later than current employees) and set pension payments at levels lower than current employees.

City Council candidate Chuck Bernstein, who helped organize a grassroots campaign to get the pension initiative into the hands of voters, said he was happy but not surprised by the decision.

"It allows us to re-energize volunteers. The hold was hard, with the uncertainty," he said, referring to the two-week wait for a ruling after the court heard arguments on Aug. 12.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge George Miram said in his decision that the government code that allows voter input on pension systems "raises serious doubt as to whether the Legislature intended to foreclose voter involvement in pensions as the petitioners argue."

Two unions, Service Employees International Union Local 521 (SEIU) and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 829 (AFSCME), filed the lawsuit to argue that only the City Council has the authority to change pension compensation.

Judge Miram rejected that argument, stating that they did not prove that voters are not allowed to "instruct their city representatives."

Noting the costs of the city appealing a loss would exceed the $18,000 cost of the election, Judge Miram said the "wiser course" would be a post-election review.

The Aug. 27 ruling doesn't address whether the initiative is a legal route to pension reform — which means another lawsuit could be filed post-election.

Mr. Bernstein said that if the initiative passes with 60 to 70 percent of the vote, that he would expect the unions to be reasonable. "It would be a very bad public relations ploy on their part to oppose it."

Attorney Richard Miadich, who represents one of the plaintiffs, said the ultimate validity of the measure would not be decided until after the election.

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