The suit is the second attempt by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to negate the impact of Measure L, which passed with 72 percent of the vote last year. In the prior suit, the unions failed to keep Measure L off the ballot.
This time, as before, the unions seem to be homing in on the part of Measure L that requires any pension increase to be approved by a simple majority of voters, taking a key bargaining chip out of the hands of the City Council. The lawsuit claims Measure L errs by "usurping the authority the Legislature has exclusively delegated to the City Council and purporting to impose terms and conditions of employment in a manner contrary to state labor relations."
Measure L supporters had a good reason to give voters authority over any pension increases. Four years ago, the council passed a huge (35 percent) pension increase retroactive to a worker's first day on the job. The pension bump was given in return for the union's giving up a 5 percent pay raise, which then-City Council member Heyward Robinson said saved the city $200,000. But critics said the deal cost the city $6.3 million in additional pension liabilities that wiped out any savings to the city.
This time around, the council had little trouble agreeing to defend Measure L, which it did in an executive session last week. An outside firm will take the case, which in an earlier estimate City Attorney William McClure said would cost between $25,000 and $60,000.
Last year, Superior Court Judge George Miram turned down the unions' request to take Measure L off the ballot, saying 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 (unions) argue."
The judge did not agree with the contention that only the City Council has the power to change pension compensation, saying that the unions did not prove that voters are not allowed to "instruct their city representatives," on pension issues, but he left open the possibility for review after the election, which the union is seeking now.
Given Judge Miram's decision last year, and the city's commitment to mount a vigorous defense of Measure L, we do not think it is likely that the court will overrule a decision backed by 72 percent of Menlo Park voters.
And in fact, the City Council voted unanimously last May to adopt a two-tier pension system, with the same benefits provided to the city's SEIU members by Measure L. There is a caveat, however: The change in SEIU benefits will take effect only if the city can negotiate the same deal with AFSCME, which represents the city's midlevel managers.
Clearly a majority of Menlo Park voters and the City Council are eager to change compensation policies for many of the city's employees going forward. It is the right thing to do at this time, when the economy is faltering and many residents see their pensions evaporating in 401(k) plans while government employees are sheltered by a defined benefit plan that guarantees them a steady income for life, often with health benefits.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the City Council should adopt the Measure L rollbacks, and then begin to think about ways to revise its police union contract, where there is the potential for far greater savings.