JACKSONVILLE, FL The other shoe dropped on pension reform when a circuit court judge struck down an existing 30-year agreement between the city and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund, sending shock waves through City Hall.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas Beverly signed his order Tuesday, the day before City Council rejected the latest pension legislation on a deadlocked 9-9 vote Wednesday night.
On Thursday, Beverly’s ruling had made its way to the desks of city attorneys, opening a whole new set of questions about how to proceed on pension reform.
To date, Mayor Alvin Brown and the City Council have been working toward an agreement with the Police and Fire Pension Fund — an independent agency of city government with its own board of trustees — because the pension fund is the other party to the current agreement spelling out pension benefits.
Since 2011, the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County and Curtis Lee, a frequent critic of the pension fund, have tried to get that agreement tossed on grounds that the city negotiated it back in 2000 in secret meetings that violated the state’s Government in the Sunshine Law.
Beverly’s order agreed with Concerned Taxpayers and Lee, who filed the suit against the city and the pension fund.
“Obviously, I’m very happy,” Lee said Thursday. “I feel vindicated.” He said even though the city lost the lawsuit, the outcome actually benefits the city by freeing it from the constraints of the 30-year agreement, which runs through 2030.
“The Police and Fire Pension Fund for years and years and years has operated as an arm of the labor unions, so the city kept on having to make concessions where it shouldn’t have had to make concessions,” Lee said.
“I think what it does is level the playing field because for years now, the pension fund has been able to dictate to the city what it will and will not negotiate,” said Bob Dees, a Jacksonville attorney representing Lee in the lawsuit. “They have acknowledged that the current benefits are not sustainable and they agreed they had to be changed, but they picked and chose what they would negotiate.”
John Keane, executive director of the Police and Fire Pension Fund, said attorneys for the fund just got the order Thursday. He said they would give a report to the board at its April meeting for the board to decide its response.
David DeCamp, a spokesman for Mayor Alvin Brown, said city lawyers also had just begun to review the order. “We are reviewing the decision to see if it creates new opportunities to achieve pension reform,” he said.
Beverly’s decision is based on a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling last year in a similar Sunshine law case filed by Frank Denton, editor of the Times-Union.
The appeals court upheld a circuit court ruling that found the city and the pension fund violated the Sunshine Law in 2013 when they negotiated in mediation sessions convened by a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit related to the 30-year agreement. The mediation sessions were not open to the public.
That ruling in the Denton case did not strike down the 30-year agreement, however.
Brown and the pension fund conducted a series of public negotiating sessions in 2014 that produced a new pension package that ultimately met its demise at the Wednesday night City Council meeting.
Lee’s lawsuit went farther than Denton’s.
Lee asked Beverly to find that the city violated the Sunshine Law going all the way back to when John Delaney was mayor and the City Council approved the 30-year agreement in 2001.
Lee also contended the city violated the Sunshine Law during John Peyton’s term as mayor when the city amended the agreement several times and Peyton tried in 2011 for a major overhaul of pension benefits.
Beverly agreed that violations of the Sunshine Law made the 30-year agreement invalid from the get-go. His ruling does not immediately make any changes in pension benefits, saying instead that the “status quo” remains until the city achieves changes through the collective bargaining process as regulated by state law.
The pension fund has said repeatedly it is not a collective bargaining entity, so Beverly’s ruling would appear to prevent the pension fund from being involved in future negotiations, particularly since Beverly says there no longer is a valid agreement between the city and the pension fund.
Beverly’s order heightens the ramifications of the pension fund’s attempt to overturn the 1st District Court of Appeal’s ruling in the Denton case. If the Supreme Court agrees with the pension fund, that also would undercut the legal basis for Beverly voiding the existing agreement.
Chris Hand, chief of staff for Brown, wrote in an email Thursday to former members of a pension reform task force that Beverly’s order would not have affected the pension legislation that the council rejected Wednesday night. He said that legislation was based on negotiating sessions done in public.
Dees said he was watching the online live stream of the council debating the pension legislation Wednesday when his secretary handed him Beverly’s ruling, which had arrived in the mail.
He said the thought that hit him was, “It’s going to end the debate between the council members about how to handle the 30-year agreement.”
The pension legislation would have shortened the existing agreement by allowing the council to impose further benefit cuts on new hires in three years and on existing police and firefighters in 10 years.
Pension fund board members called that a major concession since the existing agreement goes through 2030.
But some City Council members said anything longer than three years violates state law that limits collective bargaining benefits to three years.
City attorneys have said that didn’t apply to the pension bill because the talks between Brown and Keane involved changing an existing contract, rather than collective bargaining.
City Councilman Bill Gulliford, who opposed the pension bill, said Beverly’s ruling “changes the whole dynamic. What if we had passed something last night?”
He said Lee’s persistence paid off.
“I think the city owes him an irreparable debt of gratitude,” Gulliford said. “He took a lot of abuse and hung in there.”
City Council President Clay Yarborough said the city shouldn’t try to appeal Beverly’s order. The city already has decided against appealing the Denton decision to the Florida Supreme Court.
DeCamp said city attorneys need to complete their review before a decision is made on whether to appeal Lee’s lawsuit. City attorneys also are researching what options are available to bring pension legislation back up after the Wednesday defeat.
According to City Council rules, legislation on the same matter cannot come back for at least a year unless it’s “substantially changed.”
The version rejected this week was based on the existing 30-year agreement, so future legislation that doesn’t refer to that agreement would be a change. The question for any future legislation would hinge on the meaning of “substantial,” which isn’t defined by city ordinance and is a matter of interpretation on a case-by-case basis.
General Counsel Jason Gabriel said “substantially changed” could apply to “a variety of matters or provisions in a given bill.”
“The legislative process is not in any way foreclosed at this point in time,” he said.
He said the council ultimately interprets its rules. He said the opinions of his office “are certainly given great weight and consideration by council when they make such deliberations. Also, remember that such council rules can be waived as well.”