Almanac

Viewpoint - September 28, 2011

Editorial: Right decision to defend Measure L

We are happy to see the City Council stand with the Menlo Park voters who approved Measure L last November by agreeing to pay for whatever legal costs are incurred to defend the measure against a challenge filed by the city's primary labor unions.

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.

Comments

Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 21, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Editor -
You wrote: "And in fact, the City Council voted unanimously last May to adopt a two-tier pension system . . ."
Wasn't the vote actually a year ago last May, ie. May 2010, as shown in a May, 2010 edition of the Almanac? Web Link
The date is significant because it shows that the Council was already working to renegotiate the overly generous pensions BEFORE Measure L reached the ballot. In other words, it shows that Measure L was not really necessary as our Council - along with councils up & down the state - was already working to correct this mistake.
[You are correct: The date should have said May 2010, not last May.]


Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

The council may have voted before the referendum reached the ballot but they didn't do a thing until this initiative was organized.


Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 21, 2011 at 5:47 pm

To make the larger point that Measure L was a totally unnecessary initiative:
Our City Council - like city councils up and down the state - worked to rectify pension plans for new employees once the recession hit and it became clear that the benefit package was not affordable. Why our city felt the need for an initiative to accomplish this while almost all other cities were able to work through their elected officials to accomplish the same end has never been adequately explained. Roy & company have claimed that the Council would have done nothing without the goad of the initiative. The fact that the Council voted unanimously for a 2-tier pension plan six months before the election shows that wasn't the case.

In my opinion, Measure L was a waste of time, energy, civic comity, and, increasingly money. Now we read that the Council has had to set aside $50,000 for legal charges to defend this unwise initiative that, in all likelihood, will be overturned.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Steve:

Measure L was not a waste of time as it prevents future councils from pandering to the unions once again. When the council said they would institute a two tier retirement plan that was all well and good, but there was nothing in that vote that would keep future councils from giving up the farm to the unions. Measure L prevents that. So, no, it wasn't unnecessary. It was mandatory to prevent the unions from buying future favors from future councils since we obviously can't count on them to cross the unions.


Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 24, 2011 at 9:35 am

Menlo Voter -

You say the initiative was necessary to prevent future councils from pandering to the unions but you ignore the question of why hundreds of other communities haven't felt the need to pass similar initiatives in their towns. Could it be that they it isn't necessary in those towns? Which suggests it probably wasn't really necessary in this town either.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Steve:

who knows why other towns haven't passed the same initiative? Perhaps many will after this one winds its way through the courts. If the courts uphold it, I'm betting you'll see more.


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