San Jose Firefighters Battle Poison Pill Pension Referendum

The San Jose Firefighters are spearheading a lawsuit to challenge a local pension reform ballot referendum scheduled for June. The ballot measure proposes a comprehensive overhaul of the employee pension rules, and includes a “poison pill” provision that would “cut current employees’ pay four percent per year up to a total of 16 percent if this or any other Court were to invalidate the part of the measure that cuts the vested rights of current employees.”

The suit was filed last Friday in Santa Clara County Superior Court by four named plaintiffs: IAFF Local 230 President Robert Sapien, retired firefighter Clifford Hubbard, police officer Franco Vado, and city worker Karen McDonough.

Two critical points are alleged in the complaint: First, that the changes proposed by the referendum would violate the collective bargaining and constitutional rights of San Jose’s public employees. Second, that the “poison pill” provision violates the due process rights of employees as well as their constitutional right of access to courts for a redress of their grievances.

However, in terms of causes of action, the suit ignores those two points and alleges a single count: that the wording of the ballot initiative is not written in a neutral and non-argumentative manner, which is a requirement of the California Election Code. Specifically, the Election Code states that the language used “shall neither be an argument, nor be likely to create prejudice, for or against the proposed measure.”

The language currently proposed for the ballot measure is:

To protect essential services, including neighborhood police patrols, fire stations, libraries, community centers, streets and parks, shall the Charter be amended to reform retirement benefits of City employees and retirees by: increasing employees’ contributions, establishing a voluntary reduced pension plan for current employees, establish pension cost and benefit limitations for new employees, reform disability retirements to prevent abuses, temporarily suspend retiree COLAs during emergencies, require voter approval for increases in future pension benefits?

For relief the complaint seeks to have the court block the ballot initiative.

Here is a copy of the entire complaint with the ballot initiative information attached as an Exhibit. Verified Petition for Writ of Mandate _00167000_

For more news on the suit.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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