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State enters pension dispute in O.C.

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown takes the side of sheriff's deputies in the legal battle with county supervisors.

September 03, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown waded into the legal fray Tuesday between Orange County and the union that represents sheriff's deputies, taking the union's side and saying he would seek to file a brief opposing the county's effort to slash deputies' pensions.

Brown's entry came after months of discussions with Tom Umberg, a former Democratic state assemblyman now representing the deputies union as a lawyer in the case, and Wayne Quint, the president of the union.

The two flew to Oakland to meet with Brown on two occasions in recent months, according to people familiar with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about them.

In announcing his intent to file a friend-of-the-court brief, Brown said in a statement: "The deputy sheriffs put their lives on the line for us, and they deserve fair compensation for their hard work serving and protecting the people of Orange County. County supervisors are not entitled to suddenly change their minds and decide to take away important pension benefits that the deputies bargained for in good faith."

The attorney general's decision has the potential to bring more attention to the case, a high-stakes battle over public employee retirement benefits that could have far-reaching consequences yet has received little attention outside the public employee pension realm.

"We are glad the attorney general is interceding," said Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. "It truly reflects the magnitude of the issue."

At issue is the structure of a labor contract between the union and the county that has been adopted by countless government agencies throughout the state for all manner of public employees, including police, teachers and general government workers. All but two of California's 58 counties have adopted the same type of deal with their public safety unions.

The 2001 agreement increased pensions by one-third and granted the benefit retroactively. This year, the county, now led by an entirely new Board of Supervisors, concluded that the retroactive portion was unconstitutional because it violated a state prohibition on pay for work already performed, and filed a lawsuit seeking to repeal that part of the contract.

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach estimates that the deal allows deputies, on average, to retire with a pension of $70,000 a year, and that the retroactive portion will cost the county $187 million over the next 30 years.

Brown's announcement did not articulate the legal grounds on which he intends to challenge the county's lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the legal arguments were still being developed and were not ready to be unveiled.

Separately, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the $230-billion public pension fund that administers benefits for government workers, said Brown would be representing its interests in the court case. CalPERS contends that the benefits are constitutional.

Mario Mainero, the chief of staff to Moorlach, who led the county to file the suit, criticized Brown's decision to get involved as political and said his initial comments indicate that he doesn't understand the basis of the lawsuit.

"It's pretty clear here that Atty. Gen. Brown, who apparently wants to be governor again, is going to try to gain the support of people who can raise a lot of money for him," Mainero said.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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