Unions Sue Jeff Adachi, City to Keep Pension Reform Off Ballot

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The union-led brawl over pension reform has, inevitably, found its way to a courtroom
Members of five city unions took the next step in labor's all-out battle against Public Defender Jeff Adachi's pension reform measure, suing Adachi and the city's election director in an effort to keep Proposition B -- nee "Smart Reform" -- off the ballot.

You can read the 60-odd page suit right here, brought by representatives of the firefighters' union; the Police Officers Association; the engineers' Local 21; the SEIU;  and the Municipal Executives Association -- and the unions themselves. Or you can read our Cliff's Notes version:

This move, incidentally,  comes on the heels of a number of previous labor efforts to derail pension and health care reform: A drive to have the Board of Supervisors strip funding from the public defender's office; poison pill language negotiated into police and fire union contracts that nullify $20 million in wage concessions if Prop. B passes; a purported effort by local union heads to cajole Rep. Nancy Pelosi into diverting federal dollars from companies owned by Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist who largely bankrolled Adachi's signature-gathering drive; a conspiracy theory that Smart Reform treasurer Craig Weber -- now Adachi's co-defendant -- managed to hoodwink 18 fellow members of the Civil Grand Jury into writing a report critical of the city's pension system; and, finally, accusations Adachi is a tax cheat.

  • The suit faults Adachi and Weber for attempting to "repeal binding arbitration for health care benefits in addition to changing employees contributions to the retirement and health care systems."

  • Prop. B would "unilaterally increase employee contribution rates to the City's retirement system, in violation of the vested rights of current employees."

  • The unions object to a "poison pill" clause within Adachi's measure that would essentially prevent city employees from receiving raises for five years, should a court invalidate any section of Prop. B. "This is really punitive and mean-spirited," union lawyer Thomas Willis tells SF Weekly.  

  • Finally, Department of Elections director John Arntz is named because he is accused of greenlighting Prop. B, even though the unions claim Adachi failed to include the "notice of intention" on his signature-gathering petition, along with the full text of his measure.
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Richard Bui
More slings and arrows heading Jeff Adachi's way...

Adachi did not return SF Weekly's messages regarding the suit. But, in the past, he has repeatedly emphasized that his measure did not violate city employees' vested rights. On the pension side, it does not affect how much money they'll take out at the end, but only how much they put in -- an increase to 9 percent for miscellaneous employees and 10 percent for public safety workers.

On the health care side, Adachi said that doubling the amount employees pay for dependents' coverage to 50 percent was within the city's power.

The portions of the suit dealing with Arntz will be defended by City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Matt Dorsey, Herrera's spokesman, told SF Weekly that omissions of this sort have traditionally withstood legal scrutiny. Readers may remember an initiative regarding Hunters Point development being stripped from the ballot two years ago (for omissions, incidentally, far graver than what the unions allege Adachi left off). In invalidating that measure, an appeals court judge made the following pertinent observations:

  • "Technical deficiencies in referendum petitions are excused if the form of the petition is in substantial compliance with statutory and constitutional requirements."

  • "If a referendum petition omits required material that is not essential to understanding the substance of the challenged ordinance, the petition is still valid under the substantial compliance doctrine."

You can read that ruling here: CALAPP-BVHP-RULING.pdf

Incidentally, while the elections department sends ballots to the printer on Sept. 1, that doesn't mean the end of the month is the drop-dead deadline for the unions to attempt to keep Prop. B from ever appearing before the voters.

Willis, the unions' attorney, said he believes the matter will be decided by then. But if it isn't -- or if it's decided in a manner his clients don't like -- he said he and his clients "would have to decide" whether to take this matter to the court of appeal.

Should voters ever get to decide on Prop. B, will unions' increasingly frenetic efforts to drown it in the bathtub reflect badly with the electorate? Hard to say, says San Francisco political consultant Jim Ross.

"I think it's pretty inside baseball; I don't know how much voters pay attention. But it is an example of how concerned labor is about the issue," he says. "I've seen polling that shows it as a popular measure ... The concept is very popular to voters in general."

It's difficult to knock initiatives off the ballot, Ross continues. But it may be cheaper than mounting a full campaign against it come election time. But this strategy may be penny-wise, pound foolish. "It might be a strategic error to try and fight this in the courts rather than have a real debate about it with voters and win that debate," says Ross. "If they defeat it in the courts, Jeff Adachi or some other group will be back next year with a cleaned-up version of this. But if they can win at the ballot box, you probably won't see pension reform for 10 years in San Francisco. Unless we really go broke. Who knows?"

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