Third Time a Charm or Just More Lost Taxpayer Dollars?

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Tuesday, February 8, 2010 | County supervisors today will decide privately whether to ask the California Supreme Court to listen to their lawsuit arguing that the county government shouldn’t have to pay retroactive pension benefits to deputy sheriffs.

While it looks as if supervisors are likely to keep moving forward, as the legal bills (and courtroom losses) mount, there are questions whether the county should keep going to court.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal last month rejected current supervisors’ arguments that their former colleagues broke the law on incurring debt when they chose to expand deputy sheriff pensions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. A Los Angeles Superior Court had previously rejected the same arguments.

Both courts made their decisions quickly, prompting many — even fervent opponents of public employees unions — to question whether the lawsuit should have ever been filed.

Wayne Quint, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, has argued that the $2.2 million spent by the county is a waste of taxpayers’ money. He is expected today to address supervisors in open session asking them to abandon the next appeal to the Supreme Court.

Actuaries figure supervisors’ actions on deputy sheriff pensions in 2001 could end up costing taxpayers more than $187 million over the next three decades.

County Supervisor John Moorlach — who along with his former chief of staff, Mario Mainero masterminded the effort — says it’s no time to quit.

Although Mainero left county service a few years ago, he’s been retained to advise supervisors under a contract that has drawn fire.

Despite concerns over monies spent to argue the lawsuit, Moorlach sees an appeal to the Supreme Court as a natural because he argues that court can challenge legal concepts in a method other lower courts won’t.

“They would really take a serious look,” said Moorlach, adding that he’s ready to make a case to his colleagues on Tuesday. “This is where we can change the understanding of the law.”

Moorlach acknowledges he’s a bit nervous, hoping he can secure two more votes to keep going.

Moorlach said the costs for moving forward today are nominal, especially when considering the potential benefits. And, he warned, if someone else makes a successful court challenge later, Orange County would get nothing.

County Supervisor Janet Nguyen – who voted against going forward with the appeal last year – sees Tuesday in a different light.

Nguyen said she’s concerned with mounting legal bills from the lawsuit, especially during today’s tough budget-cutting environment.

And it doesn’t help that the lawsuit keeps losing, Nguyen added.

For her, it’s time to move forward.

“If we want reform on pensions, we’ve got to negotiate that,” Nguyen said.

She mentioned recent deals that have been crafted with the county’s general employee union, the Orange County Employees Association, as well as the deputies on issues involving retiree medical benefits and pension contributions.

Taking people that you want to negotiate with into court is a bad idea, she said.

“If we want to negotiate better contracts,” Nguyen said, “this is a distraction.”

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