The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to impose a labor contract on the county’s nearly 500 public attorneys, a move that was immediately met with a lawsuit threat from the union that represents the lawyers.

“You know we’re going to sue you,” said Scott Van Camp, a leader of the Orange County Attorney’s Association, which includes attorneys from the district attorney, public defender and county counsel offices. The union has already filed an unfair labor practice action against the county.

Van Camp and other union attorneys argued that the board is violating a recently enacted California pension law by imposing higher pension contributions in a labor negotiation. County negotiators disagreed, saying supervisors can still impose terms.

At issue is the county’s demand that all employees join the rank and file in paying for the employee share of monthly contributions to the county retirement system. Since a new pension benefit tier was introduced in 2004, general employees have been paying their employee share of pension payments, along with the impacts from a retroactive boost granted that year to more senior workers.

Given the attention on ballooning, unfunded pension liabilities and Gov. Jerry Brown’s own revisions to the state’s pension system, known as the Public Employees Pension Reform Act, there has been heightened focus on making better-paid workers — attorneys, public safety officials, executives, managers and elected officials — do the same.

“At some point you have no choice but to impose, because you’ve got to get these savings or the system is going to implode,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Yet hving those at the upper end of the pay spectrum to pay their full employee share has been challenging.

County supervisors have yet to agree to pay for their own employee share. Managers only accepted it after it was imposed by a fact-finding panel.

In general, upper-end workers like the managers have been attempting to secure salary increases to make up for the requirement they invrease their  pension contributions.

Board Chairman Shawn Nelson, who along with Supervisor Pat Bates doesn’t take a government pension, has joined Supervisor John Moorlach in taking a hard line against any salary increases while pension liabilities are out of balance.

Moorlach himself has yet to contribute to his own pension benefit. Two other supervisors, Janet Nguyen and Todd Spitzer, also don’t pay their employee share.

Attorneys’ association lawyers told supervisors on Tuesday that the pension reform act prohibits employers from using impasse proceedings to force employees to pay more for pensions.

Yet county negotiator Bruce Barsook told supervisors that the attorney’s association was misreading the law. “Nothing in [the act] changes the law regarding the county ability to change member contributions,” Barsook said.

Supervisors are still in negotiations with most of the county’s labor unions, including the Association of County Law Enforcement Management; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs; Alliance of Orange County Workers; In-Home Supportive Services Provider Unit represented by United Domestic Workers of America; International Union of Operating Engineers; and the Orange County Employees Association.

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