The Fall of Pacific Grove – The Judge's Ruling
The Final Chapter, Part 3 of 4
The parties to the law suit made final oral arguments, and on June 18, 2013, Judge Wills issued his Statement of Decision, setting forth his conclusions and the legal reasoning that led to his conclusions.
First, he found that because the charter stated that the city council was directed to set the compensation of all officers and employees, the people could not process an initiative that set compensation. Recall that the attorneys for the city did not cite the case of Spencer v. City of Alhambra (or any of the 122 cases in which it had been cited) which said that articles in a charter which direct the body that is to set compensation do not preclude an initiative that sets compensation.
The city failed to argue that the city council had in fact adopted the initiative ordinance as its own, thereby complying with the charter.
The city failed to inform Judge Wills that a legislative act, like setting compensation, could only preclude the right to petition a compensation ordinance via the initiative if the charter had expressly excluded that power from the initiative process; and there was no such exclusion in the Pacific Grove Charter.
The Pacific Coast shoreline – rezoning these areas for high-density luxury hotels will
bring tax revenue to the city so they can afford to pay their pension fund contributions.
Measure R was affirmed by a vote of 74% of the voters. It had clarified that Article 25 of the charter was amended (if necessary) to assure that the voters retained its initiative power to set compensation and affirmed that employees did not have vested pension rights. The POA argued that Measure R was too late, because it didn’t apply at the time the council adopted the initiative as its own. Incredibly, the city attorney had not submitted his declaration indicating that Measure R was to apply retroactively to supplement the pension reform ordinance. He could have pointed out that the video of the council meeting placing Measure R on the ballot would have clearly shown that Measure R was to apply retroactively. That was the only reason for Measure R. His failure to point out that he had drafted Measure R to concur in time with the earlier adoption of the retirement reform ordinance was an omission much more serious than malpractice, it was a breach of his fiduciary duty to uphold the ordinance and to act with his singular fidelity to the city and its laws.
Second: Finding that employees had a vested pension right, Judge Wills said:
“The Retirement Contribution Ordinance is invalid in violation of Article 1, Section 9 of the California Constitution, the Contracts Clause. The employees were told that they were to receive retirement benefits under a CaLPERS administered plan with an employee cost set at a fixed percentage of their salary. The fluctuating portion would be borne by the employer.”
“Upon entering employment with such a promise, the employee has a vested right to earn a pension on those terms and conditions.”
“Measure R Resolution 10-055 violates the Contract Clause of the California Constitution for the same reasons.”
“Again, the Court reiterates that what is vested in the employee is a right to earn a pension on the terms promised him or her upon employment. That right commences when the promise is made and the employee then commences or resumes work.”
Based on the facts and the law, the judge was in error on every point he made to justify his conclusion:
- Per the city charter, compensation must be set forth in an ordinance. There was no ordinance that promised employees a vested pension right (ever).
- Prior to the trial, the court had ruled that the MOU (contract between labor and the city) did not grant a vested right.
- Prior to the trial, the court had ruled that the contract to administer pensions between the city and CaLPERS did not grant a vested pension right:
- As set forth in the LCW CEB course on vested rights, an “implied” vested right can only be implied from the legislative intent.
- Legislative intent by implication looks to evidence that showed the intent of the legislative body at the time of adopting an ordinance or adopting a contract (County of Orange case, South Pasadena case, and other cases). There are no appellate cases contra to this principle.
- An “implied” vested right can only flow from a statute or contract that created the benefit, in this case a pension. The issue was not whether a pension benefit was granted, but whether the council adopted an ordinance or contract that promised the benefit for life. The POA did not even argue that there was a statute that granted a vested right, and the only documents it had included in its complaint were stricken from the evidence. The city did not inform the court that a statute or contract was essential to the analysis.
- The opinion makes it clear that Judge Wills was unaware that the law presumes that an instrument does NOT create a vested right. He was not even aware that a statute or contract granting a benefit was a precondition to determining whether the benefit was vested (for life). So he hung his decision on alleged oral promises, promises which had not been made by the legislative body.
- Only the police unions sued, but the court invalidated the ordinances totally, thereby giving all of the unions not before the court and the non-union staff a gratuitous judgment. Each union negotiated most MOUs separately from other unions. There was no evidence related to their rights.
- If there had been a basis for invalidating the ordinances, it certainly was still valid for new hires. New hires had no right to an expectation of any kind. The ordinances would have limited the new hires to a pension whereby the city could pay no more than 10% of salary. Over time, if the city could survive through the cost of current employees’ pensions, Pacific Grove could have been saved by applying the ordinances to new hires. In fairness to the judge, the attorneys for the city did not even request that if all else failed, the ordinances clearly applied to new hires. In the San Jose pension reform law suit, defendant unions stipulated that the contested reform ordinance applied to new hires.
- The most critical flaw in the judge’s decision was his failure to apply the two-step process described in the LCW State Bar seminar: was there a benefit? Yes. Was it granted for life, or only for the term of the MOU? Only for the term of the MOU.
Read the entire series:
– The Final Chapter, Part 1, October 20, 2015
– The Final Chapter, Part 2, October 27, 2015
– The Final Chapter, Part 3, November 2, 2015
– The Final Chapter, Part 4, November 9, 2015
* * *
About the Author: John M. Moore is a resident of Pacific Grove, Ca. He is a licensed member of the California State Bar (#34749) and a member of the “Public Law” section of the State Bar. He is retired and no longer practices law, but has Lexis/Nexis for research. John graduated from San Jose State College with majors in Political Science and Economics (summa cum laude). He then received a JD from The Stanford School of Law and practiced business and trial law for 40 years before retiring. In 1987, he was the founding partner of a Sacramento law firm that he formed in 1987 to take advantage of the increased bankruptcies brought about by the Tax Act of 1986. Although he did not file and manage bankruptcy cases, he represented clients in numerous litigation matters before the bankruptcy court, including several cases before judge Klein, the current judge of the Stockton bankruptcy case. He is an admirer of Judge Klein, for his ability and accuracy on the law. As managing partner, he understood the goals of bankruptcy filings and its benefits and limitations.
* * *
Note to readers: During 2014 author John Moore published the first chapter of The Fall of Pacific Grove in an eight part series published between January 7th and February 24th. For a more complete understanding of the history, read the entire earlier series:
– Part 1, January 7, 2014
– Part 2, January 14, 2014
– Part 3, January 21, 2014
– Part 4, January 28, 2014
– Part 5, February 3, 2014
– Part 6, February 11, 2014
– Part 7, February 18, 2014
– Conclusion, February 24, 2014