After staying out of the fray for several months, Gov. Jerry Brown has asked attorney general Kamala Harris to defend California's new public pension law from lawsuits filed by employee unions in at least four counties.
The litigation targets the quasi-independent pension boards in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Merced counties for applying part of the law to all members, including those in the systems before the statute took effect on Jan. 1.
While the lawsuits vary in the particulars, they share a common union contention that "compensation earnable" -- various types of pay considered for pension purposes -- can't be altered for those existing members. In Merced, for example, a union representing county sheriff's employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed suit after the local pension board said the the new law excluded cashed-out vacation pay when calculating retirement benefits for anyone who retired after Jan. 1.
The Merced pension board didn't send attorneys to court to defend its interpretation of the law. Neither did Attorney General Kamala Harris nor the Brown administration. The judge hearing the case told the Merced fund to continue calculating retiring members' pensions under the old rules while the court sorts things out.
This week the Brown administration told the counties that Harris would get involved at his direction, said Vincent P. Brown, chief executive officer of the Alameda County Employees' Retirement Association.
"We've been waiting and waiting," he said this morning. He thinks that the common element in the four lawsuits, the compensation earnable question, could be combined into a single case at some point.
A copy of the attorney general's motion to intervene in the Alameda case on Moday makes clear that Harris is acting at the governor's request.
"I believe we will be filing similar notices in other cases today," said Harris' spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill.
Unlike most public employers in California offer retirement benefits through CalPERS or CalSTRS, the four counties in litigation are "1937 Act" counties that administer their own pension systems within boundaries set by the state. Sacramento County, which is one of the 20 entities in that group, is not being sued.
PHOTO: Kamala Harris speaks to Bee reporters during her 2010 run for attorney general. / Sacramento Bee file, Paul Kitagaki Jr.