The Pension Scandals in Sonoma and Marin Counties
Two Case Studies on How Two Counties Purchased Outside Legal Opinions That Delivered Aggressively Self-Serving Interpretations of the Law in Response to Grand Jury Reports That Found That Substantial Pension Benefits had Been Granted Illegally.
In California, public pensions are guided by different divisions of the government code. The largest administrator is CalPERS which administers pensions for most cities, some counties and most political districts pursuant to statutes known as The Public Employee’s Retirement Law (PERL).
The County Employee’s Retirement Law (CERL) governs counties, cities and districts that elected to be governed by CERL. These CERL agencies have an administrative agency for their plan that is local and not governed by CalPERS.
This article deals with pension abuses by two separate CERL agencies, the counties of Sonoma and Marin. Each has its own retirement board. In each county, the civil grand jury found serious procedural violations that were preconditions to the adoption of retirement increases:
Each grand jury report documented the grant of pension increases from 2002 through 2008 without providing the board of supervisors (BOS) and citizens mandated actuarial reports estimating the “annual” cost of each enhancement.
Each county obtained outside legal opinions, which committed direct violations of fiduciary duties owed the client (the County) and failed to provide “material matters” to the client as required by the “Rules of Professional Conduct” applicable to California lawyers.
This is the first expository article, specifying the unusual lengths gone to by law firms to aggressively interpret the law to help government agencies, like a county, to protect hundreds of millions of dollars of illegally adopted pension increases.
The Sonoma pension increases were documented by the civil grand jury in 2012. The Marin civil grand Jury report was issued in 2015. On March 9, 2016 a Marin citizen, David Brown, sued the Marin County board of supervisors for its failure to take action to remedy the illegalities found by the grand jury.
On March 23 and March 28 The Marin Independent Journal, the dominant paper in Marin County, printed an article and an editorial, respectively, on the topic.
“Pension critic calls for court review of grand jury’s pension probe,” by Nels Johnson, Marin Independent Journal
“Marin IJ Editorial: Pension critic doesn’t deserve county’s rebuke,” Editorial, Marin Independent Journal
This analysis specifies how these pension increases almost certainly violated the law, but more importantly, and for the first time, how outside law firms provided questionable legal opinions to protect the illegally granted benefits.
The California Rules for statutory construction clearly show that Government code 7507, herein “7507,” was and is mandatory. Compliance by the Agency legislative body prior to increasing pensions “shall” and “must” occur, or the increase is void or voidable. Section 7507, as it read from 2000 to 2009 had three distinct mandates.
Mandate one: The legislature and local legislative bodies (the board of supervisors for counties) 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.
Comments on mandate one:
- Per Government code section 14 “Shall” is mandatory and “May” is “permissive.” Permissive is another way to say “directory.” “Shall” is used three times in the statute, and without qualification or limitation of any kind.
- It is the “legislative body” (board of supervisors, city council, district board) that must obtain the actuarial report, not the retirement administrator or board, or even the agency.
- See also Govt. code 31516: “The board of supervisors shall comply with Govt. code 7507 before… etc.” Govt. Code 31516 was added in 1995 to make certain that CERL retirement administrators required board of supervisors’ compliance before agreeing to accept a new retirement increase.
- According to Govt. code 14, if the legislature had intended permissive and not mandatory, it would have used “may,” but it clearly did not.
Mandate two: The ‘future annual costs’ shall include, but not be limited to, annual dollar increases or the total dollar increases involved when available.
Comments on mandate two:
- Govt. code 7507 deals not with “costs,” but increased “annual costs.” If the cost of 2%@50 was $10M a year and it was increased to 3%@50, and the cost of that increase was $5M a year, then the total cost would be $15M a year. The annual cost estimate of the new benefit was $5M.
- If the new benefit was retroactive for time served, another annual cost for that determination was required.
- In order to determine the annual costs, the actuary needed the salary and actuarial data for members of each group receiving the increase. For example, if the increase related to both fire and sheriff, salary and actuarial data was required for both groups.
- The annual cost increases must be stated in “dollar” sums for “any” pension increase.
Mandate three: 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.
Comments on mandate three:
- “Any” is clear. Every separate increase for an affected group of members must comply with 7507.
- The reason for 7507 is to inform the board of supervisors and the public of the budget dollar cost of a new pension benefit; a transparency issue. But also to assure that the constitutional debt limit is not violated by the increase; and, on a common sense level, to see if the new benefit is sustainable.
- There are statutory requirements for describing agenda items. California Govt. Code Section 11125(b) requires, “The notice of a meeting of a body that is a state body shall include a specific agenda for the meeting, containing a brief description of the items of business to be transacted or discussed in either open or closed session. A brief general description of an item generally need not exceed 20 words.” See also California Govt. Code Section 54954.2(a)(1)(seventy two hour notice). It is insufficient to refer to an agenda or other report to meet the notice requirements. Whether in an open or closed session, a minimum agenda notice regarding pension enhancements would provide as follows: “Item provides annual dollar increase in costs, as determined by an actuary, for retirement increases for X employee categories.
In 2009, the legislature attempted to close loopholes that agency lawyers had devised to evade the “annual cost” revelations required by Govt. code 7507. It amended it to prohibit the use of consent agendas and henceforth required the chief administrative officer of the agency to certify compliance with Govt. code 7507. Like govt. code 41516 of CERL, CalPERS had always required such certification, but not necessarily by the chief administrative officer. The 2009 amendments are persuasive evidence of the mandatory nature of the statute; otherwise, why would the legislature bother to strengthen it?
In both Sonoma and Marin County’s Code of Ordinances there is a code provision mandating that “shall” means mandatory. Like Govt. code 14, the mandated rule of interpretation was not referenced in county obtained legal opinions. That was a travesty. Outside counsel had a duty to reveal that “shall” as used in interpreting the government code was mandatory
The Sonoma County Pension Scandal
In 2012, in response to citizen’s complaints, the Sonoma county grand jury, investigated massive pension increases initiated in 2002 (by 2013, the Stanford Pension Tracker reported that the Sonoma pension deficit has grown to $2.2 billion, including about $500M in pension bonds). At the conclusion of its investigation, the grand jury report concluded: “The CERL requirements for approving the county pension in 2002 do not appear to have been followed.”
Not very dramatic? Right? Well Sonoma County’s response to the grand jury report was spectacular – arguably it was a total confession: “Documents could not be located to demonstrate that the County made the actuarial cost impacts public at a public meeting at least two weeks prior to the adoption of the enhanced retirement benefits.”
But in spite of that admission, the county response, based on a shameless outside legal opinion stated that while the county did not notice and provide the annual cost in dollar terms at a public meeting two weeks prior to approving the retirement enhancements, it had “substantially complied with 7507. In effect, the lawyers said zero compliance equaled substantial compliance.
The outside legal opinion agreed that a 7507 actuarial report had not been made public, and had not even been obtained by the board of supervisors as required by 7507; it referred to two actuarial reports from the files of the Human Resources department (not the board of supervisors as required by 7507) and made the incredible conclusion that those internal records, never shown to the board of supervisors or the public, equaled “substantial compliance” with 7507.
The history of the Sonoma County 2002 pension increases is critically important to prove the concerted power of county staff, unions and board of supervisors to illegally enrich their group by non-adversarial, precise, agreed upon tactics. This is the usual method of so-called collective bargaining in California government.
At the turn of the century there was an open dispute about what determined “pensionable compensation” in CERL agencies like Sonoma County. The California Supreme court cleared up the issue in “The Ventura Decision.” But the Sonoma county lawyers saw a billion dollar opportunity. A “Ventura Decision” law suit was pending in Sonoma County, but of course all of the issues had been decided by the supreme court in the Ventura case.
Eventually, all of the members of the county pension plan (beneficiaries) were made parties to the suit. Plaintiffs and defendants made a detailed written lawsuit settlement that substantially increased pensions, both going forward and retroactively, for every plaintiff and defendant group, including the board of supervisors.
Here is a link to the Ventura Settlement agreement enacted by the Sonoma County Retirement Association’s Board of Directors who do not have the authority under the law to increase pension formulas. That can only be accomplished with a Board of Supervisors resolution adopting the new formulas. Item 8 in the agreement increased benefit formulas for Safety employees and Item 9 increased benefit formulas for General employees.
The board of supervisors did not obtain an actuarial report as required by 7507; therefore it was impossible to notice a public meeting to make the annual cost known to the public prior to adopting the increases, also as mandated by 7507. There is absolutely no case law suggesting even by hint, that 7507 could possibly be “permissive” (directory). As I will show, there was and is substantial case law confirming that 7507 was/is mandatory.
I have been actively observing governmental pension and compensation history since about 2008. The approach used to design the Sonoma county pension scandal is a precise representation of union bargaining in California governmental agencies. Everyone at the table benefited from unanimous compensation increases. In response to the grand jury finding, the successors of the same beneficiary groups that designed the scheme, stuck to the scheme by ignoring the facts and the law, and engaged law firms to provide them legal interpretations that defended their actions, as exemplified in the responses to grand jury findings of substantive compliance with 7507.
Hopefully, this analysis will spark an interest in pension reform in Sonoma county.
The Marin County Pension Scandal
In April 2015, the County of Marin civil grand jury issued a comprehensive report entitled: “Pension Enhancements: A Case of Government Code Violations and A Lack of Transparency.” The report was a precise factual demonstration of 23 violations of the requirements of 7507 by the county.
In particular, the grand jury report focused on the County’s failure to obtain actuarial reports and the failure to notice public meetings to reveal the annual costs of the increases to the public, as required by section 7507. In addition, I note that the facts indicate that not only the public, but the “legislative body” (board of supervisors) was not provided a 7507 estimate of the future costs of “any” increase as required by 7507 and government code 31516.
The grand jury report indicated that as of its April 2015 publication the most recently available county unfunded pension deficit was $536.8M. The County also had over $100M in pension obligation bonds outstanding.
Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans (CSPP), a Marin pension reform group, hired attorney Margaret Thum to provide a legal brief outlining the law related to the facts set forth in the grand jury report. The county hired the law firm of Meyers Nave to advise it about its required response to the grand jury report. The Thum opinion was totally honest and accurate, but the board of supervisors refused to read it or to even make it part of the public record. It is debatable, at best, to assert that the Meyers Nave opinion argued for the interests of the county of Marin, its client. An objective reading of the Meyers Nave opinion might instead find that it misrepresented the law and facts and omitted critical statutes and cases.
A review of the Meyers Nave legal opinion makes it clear that it agreed the county had failed to obtain an actuary report setting forth the “annual costs” of “any” retirement increase discussed in the grand jury report. It admits that no public meeting was noticed or held, where the “dollar amount” of the annual cost for each new benefit was reported to the public, or even to the board of supervisors as required by 7507 and 31516.
But despite these acknowledgements, Meyers Nave argued that the County had “substantially complied” with the statutory requirement. Its contention on the facts was that in 1999 and 2001, the “Mercer” actuarial firm provided the county Human Resources Department (not the board of supervisors or the public as required per 7507) with actuary reports about the proposed increases. I note that the latter of the reports stated that it relied on calendar year 2000 data in making its estimates.
Here is why that is important. In the fiscal year 2001-2002 there was a tech stock market crash. Both PERL and CERL pension plans lost approximately 7% of the value of their assets and failed to earn their 8% assumed rate of return at the time. Generally CERL plans thereby fell short of their target return by 14%. So the use of 2000 data would have substantially understated the cost of any new benefit after 2001-2002. In addition the rate of retirement, salary increases etc. after 2000 would have increased the annual cost of the new benefit. That is why it was necessary to obtain a current actuary report – one that used the most recent data from the past year to provide a report that that produced an accurate “annual cost” dollar amount.
I am not an actuary, but I have reviewed dozens of 7507 actuarial reports. Every one of them provided that after June 30 of a designated year (e.g.2000) the report was no longer valid because the data from the last year was now finalized and available for a current and accurate analysis. That is what actuarial standards required.
Keep in mind that as the grand jury, as did the Sonoma grand jury, found there were no bona fide 7507 actuary reports; only the Mercer reports (which neither the public nor the board of supervisors saw). The board of supervisors did not obtain a valid actuary report setting forth the annual costs in dollar sums for “any” pension increase, and that information was not revealed to the public at a public meeting, so there was NO compliance with 7507. Yet, a law firm conjectured that there was “substantial compliance” when, arguably, there was NO compliance. Did that firm breach its duty to the client, if the client, ultimately, was the citizens of Marin County? It appears that the firm advocated for the staff, unions, and the board of supervisors, the continuing beneficiaries of the illegally adopted pensions, and contrary to the interests of the client.
Follow the Attorneys:
In pension enhancement cases, the process to comply with 7507 is as follows:
- The unions ostensibly negotiate with the county for a pension enhancement,
- they agree on the increased pension and execute a contract (MOU) setting forth the terms,
- the board of supervisors adopts the MOU,
- the county informs the Retirement board of the new benefit,
- the board of supervisors obtains a Govt. code 7507 report determining the annual dollar cost for each new benefit.
- the county notices a public meeting by an agenda notice that describes that at the meeting the county will reveal the annual dollar cost of each (any, per 7507) pension increase set forth in the MOU’s,
- that meeting is held at least two weeks prior to adoption of the new benefits,
- if approved, the county enters into a new or amended agreement with the Retirement Board for the administration of the new pension enhancements.
In the case of “Voters for Responsible Retirement v. board of supervisors, (1994) 8 Cal. 4Th 765, the California supreme court clarified the moment at which the MOU’s that increased pensions were valid contracts. It said: “..section 7507 provides that the local legislative body, before adopting increases in public retirement benefits for its employees, must obtain actuarial evaluations of future annual costs of the plan, and make that cost information public “at a public meeting at least two weeks prior to the adoption of any increases in public retirement plan benefits.”
In the 1994 ruling, the court made it clear that the county, by its board of supervisors could refuse to pursue the new benefit if the 7507 report indicated that the cost was not acceptable to the board of supervisors. Additionally, the court noted that if the board of supervisors refused to adopt the benefit after receiving the 7507 report, the MOU’s were not final because the condition subsequent to validity had not occurred and it was back to the negotiating table to start anew.
The Alleged Violations of Fiduciary Duty in Both Sonoma and Marin Counties
- The most outrageous fiduciary breach by lawyers for the county in the Sonoma and Marin pension scandals was the evident by-pass of Govt. code 7507. On a risk reward basis it was apparently decided that it was better to risk non-compliance when compared to the knowledge that a 7507 actuary report would reveal. That is, the enhanced plan would reveal a violation of the constitutional debt limit, which would then require a 2/3 vote of the people;
- The failure of a single county lawyer to advise that in the Voters case the California supreme court had ruled that MOUs between unions and the county granting pension increases were dependent upon board of supervisors compliance with 7507; otherwise there was no binding contract;
- The assertion that no case law has found that 7507 was mandatory. Clearly the Voters case proves that it was mandatory.
- In addition to the omission of “Voters” case, note how outside counsel explained Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ v. Bd. of Supervisors (1996) 41 Cal. App.4th The law provided that a board of supervisors could withhold the power of its retirement board to define retirement eligible compensation that included “flexible payments.” If a board had not denied a Retirement Board the power to set flexible payments as a part of final compensation, then the Retirement Board had that power. That is what it did in this case. This was permitted because 7507 only applies to the legislature and legislative bodies and not retirement boards.
- The court held that because the consent of the board of supervisors was unnecessary for the retirement board to set flexible payments, there was not a violation of 7507. If board of supervisors’ approval had been required there would have been a violation of 7507 invalidating the increases that resulted. If 7507 was not mandatory, there was no issue for the court to decide. At page 15 of its legal opinion Meyers Nave cites cases unrelated to the Govt. code where the court in those cases discussed whether “shall” as used in the contracts was mandatory. It omitted reference to Govt. Code 14 of the Govt. Code Rules of interpretation that states clearly that “shall” is mandatory.
- Here is what Meyers Nave told the board of supervisors and citizens about the Howard Jarvis case to imply that it did not support that 7507 was mandatory. It repeated the facts, as I have above, and then said: ”Under the facts of the case, section 7507 was found inapplicable.” What Meyers Nave failed to tell the board of supervisors was that 7507 was inapplicable because it did not involve the board of supervisors, but that if it had, compliance with 7507 was mandatory. Here, let that court explain it: “However, the record demonstrates the change in the retirement system of which plaintiffs complain was not an ‘increase in public retirement plan benefits’ which the board of supervisors may authorize, AND WHICH WOULD SUBJECT IT TO THE REQUIREMENTS OF SECTION 7507 (emphasis mine), but rather a change in LACERA’S method of calculating “compensation earnable”……” What can I say? The omission of the court’s clear statement that 7507 was mandatory for board of supervisors adopted pension increases had the effect of misleading the public as to whether 7507 was mandatory. That gimmick benefited not the client, but the beneficiaries of the illegal pension: the staff, the unions, the board of supervisors. It financially hung the client and citizens out to dry.
- The legal opinion also does another magical application to the case of California Statewide Law Enforcement v. Department of Personnel Administration 192 Cal. App. 4Th1 (2011). Again, the issue is whether 7507 was mandatory. In the case, CSLEA, a govt. union that had been classified as “miscellaneous” was granted “safety status” with higher pensions by the 1992 legislature. After it became law, the union claimed it was entitled to the new “safety” status retroactively for time served as miscellaneous employees. Arbitration ensued under the “Dills Act” and a judge then ruled that CSLEA was entitled to retroactive safety benefits. DPA appealed. Keep in mind that 7507 applies to the state legislature. It did obtain a 7507 actuary of “annual costs” of the new benefit going forward, but it did not request and did not receive a 7507 report setting forth the “annual costs” of the new benefit for prior service of the employees. Again, let the court say it: “the materials provided to the legislature regarding the bill did not state that the reclassification would be applied retroactively and did not contain a fiscal analysis of the cost of the retroactive application of safety member status for all employees in the unit….” Earlier in regards to what constituted fiscal analysis, the court said: This requirement necessarily includes the obligation to present the Legislature with a fiscal analysis of the cost of the agreement. (See section 7507, sub.(b) (1) “ before authorizing changes in public retirement benefits.” The legislature shall have a “statement of actuarial impact upon future annual costs,…” In its opinion letter, Meyers Nave said: “The case does not address whether section 7507 is mandatory or directory.” In those precise words, no; but it clearly showed that 7507 was the financial information necessary for such action to be valid. The court held that the prospective benefit was legal because of 7507 compliance. Again, the Meyers Nave opinion misrepresented the court’s opinion to support its claim that 7507 was not mandatory.
- At page 16 of its opinion, Meyers Nave has the nerve to have a whole section entitled: “2. The Legislature Did Not Make The Sections at Issue Mandatory.” It then listed the four Govt. code sections referenced in the grand jury report. This must have been an oversight by Meyers Nave. Govt. code section 14 specifically provides that as used in the government codes: “Shall” is “Mandatory” and “May” is “permissive.” What makes this claim so galling is that Meyers Nave and all of the appellate courts are aware of the Voters case, the Howard Jarvis case, the CSLEA case and Govt. code section 14 and in each and every case assumed without discussion that 7507 was mandatory. There has never been an appellate case where a California attorney had the guts to argue that 7507 was directory. Why? Because such a baseless claim would properly make the firm liable for sanctions. But out of house lawyers hired by cities and counties routinely advise that 7507 is directive and therefore the staff, unions and board of supervisors can continue receiving pensions that were illegally adopted. Then, when a pension reform group like CSPP obtains an honest opinion, the board of supervisors will not even make it part of the record.
The Future for Reform in Sonoma and Marin Counties
I have not spent as much effort discussing the Sonoma Scandal. That is because the staff, unions and board of supervisors in Sonoma have very little opposition to their enjoyment of the Ventura pension gambit. The county has such great pension and other benefit debt, that another serious market downturn will likely force it into a chapter 9 bankruptcy. Then it may renegotiate its debts, reject its defined benefit plans and initiate a plan in bankruptcy that provides reasonable but affordable pensions. But there will be more suffering before that occurs.
In Marin, the situation is quite different. While it does have a pension and other benefit structure that is unsustainable, it has a vibrant pension group, the CSPP and a will to reform. But more importantly it has a gold plated grand jury report that clearly established that massive pensions were granted illegally.
Marin has a local press that has not sold out to the governing agency and is demanding that the grand jury report be given respect. A citizen has filed a civil complaint in Superior court in an attempt to keep the findings of the grand jury from being kicked down the road. He is in pro per and from that point of view is in over his head. But he does have a case. If a couple of local law firms would band together and represent him in the case I believe they would be richly rewarded under the private attorney general theory which provides for attorney fees for any success in the case.
Meanwhile citizens of Marin should hold accountable the present board of supervisors for its part in what I have argued was a bad faith effort to cheat Marin citizens out of the benefits of the grand jury report. They should be replaced by a new board of supervisors which should then terminate the present county administrator and county counsel and replace them with experts who will be contractually bound to truthfulness, transparency and undivided loyalty to the citizens of Marin by carrying out substantial reforms, such as a freeze on salaries until deficits are eliminated.
In my view, there is a serious flaw in the process by which a county hires outside counsel. The law is clear that the client is the county, not the county agent who interacts with the outside law firm. That means that the law firm has an exclusive duty to diligently apply the laws of the state and the county codes when advising the board of supervisors about legal matters. There is a fiduciary duty to do so. The California Rules of Professional Conduct require counsel to advise the client of all facts and law material to the legal matter. Instead, the out-of-house opinions invariably support the staff, unions and board of supervisors, all of whom, in this case, are beneficiaries of the illegally acquired pension enhancements.
Collective bargaining by public employees for salaries and benefits has ruined a once great way of life in California. For those who take up political space by fooling around with pension reform initiatives, it is time to face the substantive issue: A state wide initiative is necessary to remove so-called bargaining for compensation and benefits from the government arena. As the Sonoma, Marin and Pacific Grove examples show, there is no action that is off the table by the lawyers for the government to pursue, protect and enlarge illegally adopted pensions and other benefits. In the meantime the one clear tool of pension reformers is salary control, but it is rarely used.
The idea that some White Knight is going to come along and solve the pension scandal is preposterous, yet that seems to be what everyone is waiting on.
It is so disappointing that government lawyers and law firms that practice in the government area have been willing to aggressively defend what evidence strongly suggests were substantial violations of due process. It will be telling to watch the county staff and board of supervisors unleash their attorneys on Mr. Brown in his meritorious law suit. With hundreds of millions at stake, the ruling group will throw everything at him. Will the citizens come to his aid? The grand jury clearly documented the illegality of the pension increases.
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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.
Other work by John Moore:
– Part 1, December 22, 2015
– Part 2, January 11, 2016
During 2015 author John Moore published the “final” chapter of “The Fall of Pacific Grove” in an four part series published between October 20th and November 9th:
– 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
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