2014-06-19 / Community
Legality of pension reform still in question
A judge will determine the legality of a proposed Ventura County pension reform measure headed for the November ballot after the county’s lawyer reported this week that the initiative is flawed because it conflicts with state law.
Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted to place the initiative before voters, as required by law. Prepared by the Committee for Pension Fairness, formed by the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, the initiative received more than the required 26,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot.
But Citizens for Retirement Security immediately filed a lawsuit against the county regarding the measure, which is trying to replace the county’s current pension system with a 401(k)-style plan for new employees.
The Board of Supervisors will seek a judge’s ruling on the measure’s legality in time to meet the August deadline to print ballots.
Supervisor Peter Foy, the board’s only supporter of the measure, said his panel should leave the legal fight over the measure to the unions and the taxpayers group, which “costs the taxpayers zero.”
But Supervisor Steve Bennett said that putting an illegal measure on the ballot would waste taxpayer money and erode voter confidence in the democratic process if the measure were to be approved, then overturned in court.
Supervisor Linda Parks said the board has a duty to find out if the measure is legal.
“There is a mechanism in place that we could do that in an expedited fashion that can save a lot of money in the long run if it is illegal,” Parks said.
Deborah Caplan, a lawyer for the firm representing a coalition that includes the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association and the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, cited several legal issues with the measure.
“The most significant defect in the initiative is that once the county has opted into the state’s county retirement program, as Ventura County has, it’s subject to continued regulation by the state. Changes require state authorization,” Caplan said.
In a 21-page memo, County Counsel Leroy Smith agreed that the initiative is preempted by state law. He wrote that a state law accepted by a local government can’t be repealed “unless there are express provisions in the state law allowing it to do so. There are no such provisions in the 1937 Act.”
Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesperson for the Committee for Pension Fairness, told the Thousand Oaks Acorn that the lawsuit is baseless.
“Their legal challenge is not going to be awarded,” Wilcox said. “They’ve given up trying to persuade people, now they’re going to try to persuade a judge. I think it’s pitiful.”
The proposed initiative aims to reduce the estimated $1-billion debt of the county’s retirement system by requiring newly elected county officials and county employees hired after June 30, 2015 to enroll in a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan, to which the county would contribute no more than 4 percent if the beneficiaries are receiving Social Security.
The county would contribute up to 11 percent for police and fire personnel not enrolled in Social Security and 5 percent for those who do receive the federal benefit. The plan also seeks to limit the practice of so-called pension spiking by giving the county Board of Supervisors control over pay raises for five years.
Dick Thomson, a member of the taxpayers group, urged supervisors to put the measure on the ballot.
“The initiative will reform a failing pension system, create fairness for taxpayers, improve budget stability and predictability and free up resources for improved services and new opportunities,” Thomson said.
Bennett disagreed with Thomson.
“He said that our pension system is not sustainable,” Bennett said. “We heard very clearly at our budget hearings that our pension contributions will actually be decreasing in the future.”
Supervisors Kathy Long and John Zaragoza criticized the process of gathering signatures for a proposed ballot measure.
“We all know how disingenuous oftentimes that signature collecting (can be),” Long said. “It does not give a fair representation of the complexities and the unintended consequences of an initiative action.”
Zaragoza said some of the people who signed the petition “did not know what they were signing because of all the press about public employees and their benefits.”
“Our employees have worked real hard for the defined benefit that they have,” he said.
Despite the criticism, Wilcox said he’s confident the measure will make it to the polls and pass.
“They can throw their lawyers at us, and it’s not going to stop it,” Wilcox said. “This is going to go on the ballot. And it’s going to go to the people.”