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County Stalls Initiative to Increase Pensions

June 25, 2002|EVELYN LARRUBIA and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles County officials have derailed a proposed initiative that sought to increase pensions for sheriff's employees, winning a court order to keep it off the November ballot until a judge or jury decides whether the measure is legal.

In his bid to stop the initiative, County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman held it up for two weeks and briefed the supervisors on his intention to file a lawsuit against the proponents in a series of meetings that critics say appear to violate the state's open-meeting laws. Pellman defended his decision and his meetings with the supervisors as necessary to protect the county against what he said is an unconstitutional ballot measure.

It is the second time in six months that the cash-strapped county has tried to head off initiatives asking the public for increased wages or benefits.

Both attempts have angered proponents, who argue that the county's approach is secretive and unfair.

"Their role is to try to assist those who want to get something on the ballot," said Greg Emerson, an attorney representing the proponents of the pension measure. "They had no interest in doing that. They just went out and shut us down. It was undemocratic."

The measure would allow retirees as young as 50 to receive a pension equal to 3% of their salaries for each year they worked for the Sheriff's Department. Pellman says that would cost the county $400 million initially and $19 million a year after that.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Professional Assn., which represents about 1,500 deputies but is not the union that is certified to represent the department's rank-and-file, proposed the initiative because the other union was unable to secure the pension increase in negotiations.

The group filed a letter with the county registrar-recorder on June 3, indicating its intent to begin gathering signatures to place the question on the November ballot.

Under the law, Pellman normally has 15 days following such a filing to prepare an unbiased title and summary of the measure to appear on the ballot. Instead, he filed a lawsuit to block it on June 13.

Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle last week signed an order releasing Pellman from his responsibility until the question of the measure's legality can be worked out in court.

"This proposed initiative would be unconstitutional on its face," Pellman said, so he was duty-bound to stop it.

He said he alone made the decision, without a vote by the board, a move he has the authority to make whenever the county is in danger.

However, he also said he met with the board members individually to inform them of his intention to fight the measure.

"I specifically said to some of them, 'I'm not asking you for anything, I'm telling you, whether you like it or not,' " Pellman said. Thus, he said, he didn't violate the state law requiring meetings of public bodies to be held in public.

First Amendment advocates criticized Pellman's individual sessions as an effort to skirt the law, which holds that a series of meetings with a majority of a public body is the same as holding a collective meeting, that meetings have to be publicized and that they must almost always be held in public.

They were dubious of Pellman's assertion that he was not asking the board's permission.

"If he feels he has the inherent authority, don't have a series of meetings. If you're going to let everybody know, then it's a meeting under the Ralph M. Brown Act," the state's open-meeting law, said Tom Newton, a lawyer with the California Newspaper Publisher's Assn. "They apparently want it both ways."

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, agreed.

"If there is nothing really to seek authority for, then why is an interactive discussion required at all?" Francke asked. "A simple memorandum would have been adequate."

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said the board did not direct Pellman to block the initiative, but said she agreed with him that the measure would have been a disaster.

"The numbers are such that it would have bankrupted the retirement system," she said, vowing to keep the initiative off the ballot. "The choice is whether we let this whole retirement system go down the tubes, and we're not going to allow that to happen."

Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina also criticized the measure at a board meeting earlier this month. They did not return calls seeking comment, nor did supervisors Michael Antonovich or Don Knabe.

The county's adherence to open-government laws has been in question since March, when it inadvertently released documents to The Times that showed the board secretly voted to kill another initiative, which sought to increase the wages of low-paid in-home health aides for the elderly and infirm.

In that case, the board voted 4 to 1 in a closed-door meeting, with Yaroslavsky dissenting, to instruct Pellman not to issue a title and summary for the health aides initiative.

The next day, it occurred to Pellman that he was opening up the county to a civil-rights lawsuit, and he called a majority of the board members to inform them of that risk and to recommend that the required documents be issued.

The ensuing controversy led the board to adopt a series of reforms in April, including recording its closed-door meetings and allowing public access to meetings of supervisors, staff and county officials concerning matters coming before the board for a vote.

The Los Angeles Times has sued the county, claiming it violated open-government laws in relation to the health aides' initiative. That lawsuit is pending.

On June 10, the board filed a lawsuit against proponents of that initiative, asking a judge to take it off the ballot on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. The county estimates the measure would cost about $245 million a year.

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