Local Citizen Takes Marin County to Court Over Pensions
Marin County is not the only county in California where pension benefits were increased, retroactively, back when the increased cost was seemed to be easily covered by double-digit returns on pension fund investments. But Marin County is the only county, at least right now, where a private citizen is taking the county Board of Supervisors to court over alleged violations of due process. As reported in the Marin Independent Journal in their editorial of March 28, 2016:
“Mill Valley resident David Brown is taking the county to court, asking a judge to decide whether the county Board of Supervisors and other public agencies broke state law in approving workers’ pension enhancements with little or no public involvement in their decision-making process.
The 2014-15 Marin County Civil Grand Jury raised that question in its report, but the most definitive legal finding it made was that the public agencies “appear to have” side-stepped state rules.
The grand jury is not a court of law. On this issue, it raised a valid question, one that deserves a clear ruling.
That’s what Brown is seeking. As a taxpayer, he’s entitled to that and, unfortunately, he has to file a lawsuit to get it. Unfortunately, he got a dose of blowback from the county.”
Here is the actual writ that was filed on March 9th, 2016 by David Brown in the CA Superior Court for the County of Marin. Links to all of the exhibits are included at the conclusion of the petition.
SUPERIOR COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
FOR THE COUNTY OF MARIN
NAME OF PLAINTIFF(S)
DAVID C BROWN
MARIN COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS AS A GROUP
INDIVIDUALLY: STEVEN KINSEY, JUDY ARNOLD, KATIE RICE, DAMON CONNOLLY, MATTHEW HYMEL, STEVEN WOODSIDE.
DATED: March 7, 2016
Table of Contents
- Why this writ?
- Why this court?
- List of interested parties.
- Body of petition.
- List of Exhibits.
My name is David C. Brown. I am not an attorney. I live in the County of Marin at 25 Country Club Drive, Mill Valley, California, 94941. I have lived at this address since 2001. During that time I have paid taxes that have been used for, among other things, public employee salaries, pensions and benefits.
As a result of the improperly/unlawfully granted benefit enhancements I have suffered the following harms: 1) Payment of taxes in excess of what I otherwise would have paid and 2) A reduction in the quality of services from the County as money that should have been used for public services was used instead to pay the unlawfully granted retirement benefits.
Further, where “the question is one of public right and the object of the mandamus is to procure the enforcement of a public duty…” the petitioner “need not show that he has any legal or special interest in the result, since it is sufficient that he is interested as a citizen in having the laws executed and the duty in question enforced …” Green v. Obledo, 29 Cal.3d 126, 144 (1981).
- Why This Writ?
I am petitioning for this writ under Section 1085 because there is no plain, speedy and adequate remedy at law. Whether it is categorized as an error of law, a denial of a fair trial, a decision not supported by the evidence, findings not supported by evidence or all of the above, the simple fact is that is that members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors 1) should have recused themselves, 2) were negligent in not considering all the evidence and 3) received biased legal analysis and advice prior to making a decision in the matter.
- Why This Court?
On first reading this petition may look like a conflict of interest case better suited to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) than to Superior Court. That is, in fact, where I began. Last year I submitted a short complaint to the FPPC about the failure to recuse by three members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors (BOS). That complaint was closed. It was lacking in facts and documentation. Since then I have become better informed about the law regarding conflicts and more aware of the broad ramifications of the actions taken (or not taken) by the BOS. The issues involved extend far beyond the failure to recuse and deep into the financial wellbeing of the County. The actions I am requesting from the Court are much broader than simply declaring that members of the BOS were subject to conflict. They are beyond the scope of the FPPC.
- List of interested Parties
Board of Supervisors
3501 Civic Center Drive, Suite 329
San Rafael, CA 94903
Marin County Supervisor Steven Kinsey
Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold
Marin County Supervisor Katie Rice
Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears
Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly
Steven Woodside, Marin County Counsel
Matthew Hymel, Marin County Administrative Officer
3501 Civic Center Drive
San Rafael, CA 94903
- Body of Petition
Background and Facts
In April 2015 the Marin County Civil Grand Jury issued a report (Exhibit 1) in which it found 23 violations of section 7507 (Exhibit 2) of the California Government Code by the County of Marin. (The Grand Jury took care to use the version of 7507 in effect at the time (Exhibit 2A). In its report the Grand Jury issued Findings and Recommendations as required by law.
On June 30, 2015 the Marin County Board of Supervisors addressed the Grand Jury Report. Item number seven on the agenda was:
Request from the County Administrator for Board concurrence and adoption of response to 2014-2015 Grand Jury Report: “Pension Enhancements: A Case of Government Code Violations and A Lack of Transparency” (April 9, 2015).
Recommended actions: Concur in and thereby adopt response and direct the President to submit the response to the Presiding Judge.
This item was also accompanied by:
- Staff Report, (Exhibit 3)
- Response, (Exhibit 4)
- Attachment (a nineteen-page memorandum from outside counsel, Meyers/Nave.), (Exhibit 5)
- Grand Jury Report. (Ex. 1)
Before discussion of item seven began I approached the podium to address the BOS. I read CA Government Code section 87100 which says,
“No public official at any level of state or local government shall make, participate in making or in any way attempt to use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.”
Also relevant is CA Government Code Section 1090(a):
“Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.”
I did not read aloud the above section but I reminded the Board that it is the duty of the elected official, not the public, to determine if the official has a conflict.
I stated that Supervisor Kinsey had been a member of the BOS during the period when the benefit enhancements cited by the Grand Jury had occurred. He voted in favor of all of the enhancements.
I further stated that Supervisors Kinsey, Arnold and Rice and County Administrator Matthew Hymel all had a financial interest in the outcome of the Board’s deliberations regarding the Grand Jury report and that they should recuse themselves. I said it was possible that Supervisors Sears and Connolly had conflicts as well, although I was uncertain. I have since learned that Supervisor Connolly had a similar conflict.
Immediately after I spoke, County Counsel Steven Woodside, who had previously recused himself from matters related to the Grand Jury report, addressed the BOS and said,
“There is not a legal conflict that would preclude you, any of you, from participating in a discussion and decision on pension matters, compensation matters etc. even though you may have a personal stake in the matter in-so-far as you may be eligible for a pension, for example. The case that so decided this is a California Supreme Court case. The leading name is Lexin, L-e-x-i-n, makes it very clear that you have a duty to make these decisions. You have a duty to respond to the Grand Jury report. You have a duty to make decisions on compensation, etc. …”
The case to which Mr. Woodside was referring is CATHY LEXIN et al., Petitioners, v. THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Respondent; THE PEOPLE, Real Party in Interest. 47 Cal.4th 1050 (2010) 103 Cal.Rptr.3d 767 222 P.3d 214.
(My and Mr. Woodside’s comments can be found beginning at 21:28 of the video of the June 30, 2015 BOS meeting. The link to it can be found at Exhibit 6.)
I had never heard of the Lexin case so I took Mr. Woodside at his word and sat down. None of the supervisors recused themselves nor did Mr. Hymel. The meeting continued.
Legal Issues Presented
Summary of Legal Issues:
- Should supervisors Rice, Kinsey, Arnold and Connolly have recused themselves due to conflict of interest?
- Should County Administrator Hymel have recused himself due to conflict of interest?
- In light of his prior recusal, should County Counsel Woodside have participated in the Board of Supervisors’ discussion, even to the extent of offering an opinion on whether the members of the BOS and Mr. Hymel should have recused themselves?
- The memorandum written for the County by Meyers-Nave was to be an “objective legal review” of the Grand Jury report (statement by County Administrator Matthew Hymel at time 25:40 of the June 30 BOS meeting). If it wasn’t, should The County be directed to make available to plaintiff the same amount of funds used for payment to Meyers-Nave to retain an attorney with expertise in the area of statutory processes and procedures involving public sector pensions.
- Was the Board of Supervisors negligent in dismissing, and then proceeding to its conclusions, without reading the memorandum from M. Thum, Esq.?
Analysis of Legal Issues
Legal Issue 1: Should supervisors Rice, Kinsey, Arnold and Connolly have recused themselves due to conflict of interest?
As stated above, the controlling code sections in this matter are:
1) CA Government Code Section 87100 and 2) CA Government Code Section 1090.
In responding to the 2015 Grand Jury report, the four supervisors were asked to opine on the Grand Jury’s conclusion that benefit enhancements they themselves are to receive were originally granted unlawfully. The financial interest at stake for each of the four is not trivial. It is in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The membership of the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association (MCERA) does not consist of a uniform group, all of which does or will receive the same benefits as the supervisors. The membership of MCERA is divided into two mutually exclusive groups. One group (Group A) includes retirees and current employees who do or will benefit from any of the pension enhancements under discussion. Because of the pension tiers in which they participate Supervisors Kinsey, Rice and Arnold are all members of this group. Supervisor Connolly participates in MCERA through a pension tier granted by the City of San Rafael. That tier is also among those cited as questionable by the Grand Jury. An adverse finding in Marin County would have a precedential affect on the grants of pensions in San Rafael, likely affecting Supervisor Connolly’ pension.
The other group (Group Z) includes retirees and current employees who do not and will not benefit from any of the increases under discussion. This group comprises at least a substantial minority of the plan’s members.
Because the pool of funds available for retirement benefits is not infinite, the interests of the two groups are different. A decision to continue to pay unlawfully granted benefits provides advantages to members of Group A while simultaneously causing harm to members of Group Z. Paying out unlawfully granted benefits weakens the financial strength of the retirement plan. This has broad implications.
In his remarks at the BOS meeting County Counsel Woodside stated to the BOS, “You have a duty to make decisions on compensation, etc. …” He then cited the Lexin case, which revolves around Section 1090.
Section 1090 includes section 1091.5(a)(9), the so-called “compensation” exception. It states:
(a) An officer or employee shall not be deemed to be interested in a contract if his or her interest is any of the following:
(9) That of a person receiving salary, per diem, or reimbursement for expenses from a government entity, unless the contract directly involves the department of the government entity that employs the officer or employee, provided that the interest is disclosed to the body or board at the time of consideration of the contract, and provided further that the interest is noted in its official record.
The decision facing the BOS in responding to the Grand Jury Report was 1) not a decision regarding the making of a contract and 2) not one of compensation. The grant of benefits (i.e., the contract regarding compensation) had been made long ago. Rather, the current BOS was asked to decide whether the BOS in place at the time of the making of the original had followed the required statutes.
The current BOS was responding to a Grand Jury report. The Grand Jury operates pursuant to the penal code. The BOS was asked to make a judicial or quasi-judicial decision about the legality of a previous grant of compensation. The current matter was not itself a compensation matter. County Counsel Woodside’s comment “…having a duty to make decisions about compensation…” was not relevant. The “compensation” exception under Section 1091.5(a)(9) does not apply.
In addition, the supervisors’ interest was not disclosed to the “body or board” at the time of consideration of the “contract” as required by 1091.5(a)(9). Nor was the interest noted in its official record. Nor did the four supervisors disqualify themselves. Nor did the four supervisors refrain from influencing the other members of the Board.
Legal Issue 1 continued:
Had this been a compensation decision, as Mr. Woodside’s statement implied, he would have been correct that the controlling case would be Lexin v. Superior Court (47 Cal.4th 1050 (2010)103 Cal.Rptr.3d 767 222 P.3d 214). Even so, the Lexin case would not have provided an exemption for the officials involved.
Lexin hinges on the so-called “Public Services” exception, not the “compensation” exemption, to Section 1090 as stated in Section 1091.5(a)(3):
(a) An officer or employee shall not be deemed to be interested in a contract if his or her interest is any of the following: (3) That of a recipient of public services generally provided by the public body or board of which he or she is a member, on the same terms and conditions as if he or she were not a member of the body or board.
In its opinion the Supreme Court said,
“… contracts that actually involve unique personal financial interests not shared by the board’s constituency remain prohibited.” (Lexin v. Superior court) (Italics mine.)
In concluding its discussion of the “Public Services” Exception the court in Lexin went on to say:
“Having thus considered the text of the statute, judicial and Attorney General interpretations, and the surrounding statutory scheme, we conclude section 1091.5(a)(3) should be read as establishing the following rule: If the financial interest arises in the context of the affected official’s or employee’s role as a constituent of his or her public agency and recipient of its services, there is no conflict so long as the services are broadly available to all others similarly situated, rather than narrowly tailored to specially favor any official or group of officials, and are provided on substantially the same terms as for any other constituent.” (Italics and bold type mine.) (Lexin et al. page 1092)
In this case, “the service” is the enhanced pension and the conditions specified by the court are not present. The BOS was not making a contract. Even if it had been making a contract, the benefit is not broadly available to all others, or even to almost all others. Tthe constituency divided into “haves” and “have-nots”. Importantly, a benefit to the “haves” is not neutral to the “have-nots”. It causes them harm. The actions by the four Board members cause harm to members of their constituency while benefitting themselves. The public service exception, 1091(a)(3), does not apply in these circumstances.
The four supervisors should have recused themselves. Their failure to do so constitutes a violation of Section 87100 and is not covered by the relevant exemptions to Section 1090.
Legal Issue 1a: Supervisor Kinsey, a special case.
The case for recusal by Supervisor Kinsey is clear but not yet complete. Mr. Kinsey was a member of the BOS that granted every one of the pension enhancements cited by the Grand Jury. He voted for all of them. In addition to the financial conflict highlighted above, by not recusing himself, Mr. Kinsey was acting as judge and jury as to whether he himself had violated the law. This should never occur. Mr. Kinsey should have recused himself on these grounds alone. Petitioner cannot find a case or code section addressing this, perhaps because the idea is so preposterous.
Legal Issue 2: Should County Administrative Officer (CAO) Hymel have recused himself?
Mr. Hymel is a member of MCERA and will benefit directly from the questionable pension enhancements identified by the Grand Jury. Because Mr. Hymel’s compensation is greater than that of the supervisors he stands to receive a commensurately greater incremental benefit. Mr. Hymel, on information and belief, identified counsel to investigate the Grand Jury report and negotiated the terms and compensation for the agreement with counsel. The response to the Grand Jury report was prepared by Mr. Hymel or by an individual under his supervision and with his approval. Mr. Hymel recommended to the BOS the adoption of the draft response to the Grand Jury report. These actions constitute a violation of Section 87100.
Legal Issue 3: Should County Counsel Woodside have participated in the Board of Supervisors’ discussion, even to the extent of offering an opinion on whether the members of the BOS and Mr. Hymel recuse themselves?
Mr. Woodside had previously recused himself from matters related to the Grand Jury report. Mr. Woodside currently receives pensions from both Santa Clara and Sonoma Counties. His Sonoma County pension was found (broadly, as a member of a group; not individually) by the Sonoma County Grand Jury to have been enhanced under the same questionable circumstances as the pension enhancements here in Main County. An adverse finding in Marin County would have a precedential affect on the grants of pensions in Sonoma County, likely affecting Mr. Woodside personally. This is a violation of Section 87100.
Legal Issue 4: The Meyers-Nave (MN) memorandum.
Shortly after the Grand Jury report was released in April of 2015 Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans (CSPP), a group of which the petitioner is a member, asked the Board of Supervisors to hire outside counsel to review the Grand Jury report. The Board agreed.
Mr. Hymel asked CSPP to provide a list of questions to assist him in selecting counsel. CSPP provided such a list. Some of the questions were answered. Some were not. The single most important question on the list was not answered. The question was this: Who would outside counsel consider as its client? CSPP was trying to determine whether the BOS would be the client or whether the citizens of Marin County would be the client. The two answers had different implications.
The County entered a contract (Exhibit 7) with the firm of Meyers-Nave for up to $40,000. The full amount was spent.
In his comments at the June 30, 2015 BOS meeting Mr. Hymel said, “We used outside counsel because we wanted to have an objective legal review of the Grand Jury report.” (Beginning at 25:40 of exhibit 6). (Italics mine.)
For $40,000 of taxpayer money spent on an objective legal review one would expect to get just that, unbiased work product. One would expect a comparison of both sides of each legal issue followed by a thoughtful analysis of which side had the stronger case. After all, it was taxpayer money that was being spent and it was tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money that were at stake in the outcome of the analysis.
The MN memo provided nothing of the sort. What the taxpayers got for their money was a one-sided analysis of the issues that in every instance came down on the side of inaction by the BOS and maintenance of the status quo with regard to the unlawfully granted benefits. IN fact, the MN memo never mentioned that there might be another side to any issue. It was, in effect, a brief arguing against the report by the Grand Jury. To highlight just one example, MN’s discussion of whether 7507 is mandatory, and its conclusion that it is not, filled almost three single spaced pages. Yet Meyers-Nave did not cite even one of the many cases that could be used to argue that section 7507 is mandatory or that the word “shall” in the statute might actually have its plain English meaning.
If this were an adversarial proceeding, this would have been acceptable. There would have been a comparable brief from the other side. There was not. This was a case of the County using its resources to take one side of an argument when there was no one to take the other side.
The situation was analogous to that of a (conflicted) judge hearing a case but only permitting a brief from one side, the side on which the judge’s interest lies, while at the same time claiming the brief was neutral.
The conflicted position of Mr. Hymel when he hired MN, and the biased nature of the MN memorandum combine to make the MN memo tainted. However, just as a bell cannot be unrung, the memo cannot be unread. A remedy must occur.
Legal Issue 5: Refusal by the Board of Supervisors to read the memorandum from M. Thum before making its decision.
An attempt was made to present a brief from the other side. The Grand Jury report was released April 16, 2015. The contract with MN is dated June 1, 2015. The MN memo is dated June 24, 2015. As required, it was made available to the public along with the BOS draft response to the Grand Jury report on June 25, 2015, three business days before the June 30, 2015 BOS meeting at which it was discussed. The result was that MN had 23 days to research and draft its memorandum to the BOS.
In anticipation of the MN memo and the BOS draft response to the Grand Jury report, CSPP hired Margaret Thum, Esq. to analyze the two documents and to write a response (Exhibit 8).
The first paragraph of the Thum memo asked the BOS to delay its response to the Grand Jury so that it and interested citizens could “thoughtfully consider and comment upon the current draft of your response to the Grand Jury report.” Extensions to response deadlines are routinely granted by Grand Juries provided there is good cause.
Ms. Jody Morales of CSPP, speaking in open time at the June 30, 2015 BOS meeting, informed the Board of the existence of the Thum memo. She informed the BOS she had a copy of the memo for each of them. She asked the Board to extend her time so she could read the memo to the Board. The Board sat stone-faced. She suggested the BOS take a short break in order to read the memo. The Board again sat stone-faced. In the end, all CSPP could do was submit the memo for the record. This was done. Later in the meeting (1:19:47 of Exhibit 6), during public comment on the item, I said to the Board of Supervisors:
“I want to be very, very clear that if you proceed and make a decision on this report today without reading the seven-page letter that Ms. Morales submitted from our attorney you are choosing, repeat choosing, to ignore a very material piece of evidence.”
The Board proceeded with its public hearing and voted to approve the response to the Grand Jury report as written WITHOUT HAVING READ THE THUM MEMO. Conflicted members of the Board, acting as judge and jury, elected to read only documents arguing for “their” side of the issue. This constitutes negligence on the part of the Board because it ignored evidence it knew was available.
- Order that Supervisors Kinsey, Rice, Arnold and Connolly, County Administrator Hymel and County Counsel Woodside were subject to conflicts of interest and should have recused themselves from participating in the discussion and approval of the response to the Grand Jury report in question.
- Order that there was not a quorum for Item 7 at the June 30, 2015 Marin County Board of Supervisors’ meeting.
- Order that the Marin County Board of Supervisors’ response to the Grand Jury report is void.
- Because of the conflicts demonstrated, the disregard of those conflicts by those involved, the future likely unavailability of a quorum and the willful blindness demonstrated by all five members of the Board of Supervisors in dismissing the Thum memo, order that the Board of Supervisors has forfeited its right to address this matter.
- Because the MN memo cannot be unread, order the Board of Supervisors to make available a sum of $40,000, equivalent to that spent on the Meyers-Nave memo (one ten-thousandth of the County’s annual budget), to provide a brief arguing the other side of all relevant issues, along with sufficient time to construct such a brief.
- Order that this court will step into the shoes of the BOS and undertake a fare and unbiased analysis of the Grand Jury report. It should rule on all relevant points of law raised by the Grand Jury, Meyers-Nave, M. Thum and other briefs that may be submitted.
- If this court concludes that any of the individuals involved were conflicted and should have recused themselves, order that they publicly and individually apologize at a Board of Supervisors meeting as a listed item on the agenda, not as an item on the consent agenda.
I, David C Brown, certify that everything I have written in this document is true to the best of my knowledge.
David C. Brown
List of Exhibits
- Grand Jury Report
- Section 7507. 2A Section 7507 then in effect
- Marin County Board of Supervisors Staff Report
- Marin County Board of Supervisors Response to Grand Jury Report
- Meyers Nave memorandum
- Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting June 30, 2015
- Contract with Meyers Nave
- Memo written on behalf of CSPP by Margaret Thum, esq.
- Office of the CA Attorney General, 2010, “Conflict of Interest”
See Exhibit 9, page 67: “An official whose interest falls into one of the “remote interest” categories must do the following: (1) disclose the official’s interest to his agency, board or body, and (2) have the interest noted in the official records of that body. (Section 1091, subd. (a).) Further, the interested official must completely disqualify himself or herself, and must not influence or attempt to influence the other board members. (Section 1091, subd. (c)”
Section 7507: “The Legislature and local legislative bodies shall secure the services of an enrolled actuary to provide a statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs before authorizing increases in public retirement plan benefits. … The future annual costs as determined by the actuary shall be made public at a public meeting at least two weeks prior to the adoption of any increases in public retirement plan benefits. (Italics mine.)