Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | Demurrer, demurrer on the wall: Are these charges legal at all? The six former and current pension trustees facing criminal conflict-of-interest charges will try in July to get a judge to throw out the district attorney’s case against them, but entered not guilty pleas on Monday anyway.

The defendants – each charged with violating the state law prohibiting officials from deciding on contracts that can benefit them personally – all requested to file for demurrer, a motion that challenges the legal basis of District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ complaint.

“I think this case needs to be decided initially whether or not a viable charge is even charged in the complaint,” said Frank Vecchione, the defense attorney for Terri Webster, a former trustee of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System. Webster was placed on administrative leave from her post as the city’s acting auditor days before charges were levied against her.

Webster, along with Cathy Lexin, the city’s former human resources director; Mary Vattimo, the city’s former treasurer; city management analyst Sharon Wilkinson; and firefighter union president Ron Saathoff are all former members of the SDCERS board charged with violating state Government Code 1090. Also charged was John Torres, a San Diego Police Department fingerprint technician who still sits as a pension trustee.

The six defendants want to test the legitimacy of Dumanis’ felony complaints before entering into a trial, claiming the SDCERS boards’ approval of Manager’s Proposal 2, or MP2, in 2002 did not benefit the trustees financially like the district attorney alleges.

“The MP2 contract did not give rise to a financial benefit, there is no financial benefit addressed in the complaint, and all these individuals were on the board pursuant to city charter, which was a legal requirement,” Vecchione said in an interview after Monday’s arraignment. “We believe this legal complaint will not pass a demurrer.”

Dumanis alleges that each defendant saw their future monthly pension checks grow by hundreds, and in some case thousands, of dollars in exchange for allowing the city to forgo making a required lump-sum payment into the retirement system.

Judge Michael D. Wellington said the filing of demurrers, as well as a status conference to update the court on new developments in the case, will be held July 22. The preliminary hearing is tentatively set to begin Aug. 22 at 8:15 a.m, the judge said.

Learn more about the district attorney’s charges.

Kibosh dropped on September election date. City Clerk Chuck Abdelnour will ask the City Council today to hold the probable second leg of the mayoral election on Nov. 8 to coincide with a special statewide election.

In a memo sent to the council last week, Abdelnour said that the county Office of the Registrar of Voters will not be able to oversee a stand-alone election on Sept. 27 because officials will be too busy preparing for the November election, in which California voters will decide on several ballot measures being championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Sept. 27 date, which is nine weeks after the July 26 primary between 11 candidates vying to replace resigned Mayor Dick Murphy, was originally recommended by the clerk as the best day for a runoff election.

Abdelnour has since recommended staging the runoff on Nov. 8, estimating that combining the contest with the statewide referendums could save the city $2.5 million. The city’s cost for a combined election would only be about $500,000, he said.

Budget. The City Council began wrapping up its budget proceedings Monday by approving most of the proposals laid out by the city manager with some last minute touch-ups made by the mayor and various council members.

Essentially, the budget is finalized except for the spending plans for the Police Department, the administration of the city employee pension system and a $400,000 surplus city staff learned about this weekend. The council decided to make decisions on these items next week.

The police budget presented by City Manager Lamont Ewell failed by one vote after council members vented their disagreements with the proposed elimination of community service centers throughout San Diego. More than a dozen community service officers attended the meeting and many others spoke in support of the storefront stations. Read more about the proposed CSO layoffs.

Murphy drew up a revision to the city manager’s budget plans on Friday that, among other things, restored one CSO position to each of the eight council districts at an expense of $1.05 million.

Some council members wanted to use the CSO money laid out by Murphy for other services in their district that had been cut. Councilman Scott Peters, for example, elected to close the police community service center in Carmel Valley in favor of funding a groundskeeper position to maintain the three parks that would otherwise have to be closed. Peters said he didn’t want to close the community service center, but that his constituents have been expressing concern over parkland maintenance.

The City Council also wanted to hold out until next week to see the feasibility of cutting the retirement system’s administrative budget by 5 percent like other city departments. About $28 million of the $163 million slated to be paid by the city into SDCERS will be used for administrative purposes, Ewell said, but council members wanted the city manager to see if there was any way to recover the savings from a 5-percent cut for the city’s day-to-day use.

Earlier in the day, Mel Katz, chairman of the Library Commission, asked the council to take $200,000 out of the library department’s book budget to restore a staff position and pay for promotional supplies in the development office, the library’s fundraising arm. Katz said the position would more than make up the lost money through the donations collected by that particular staff position. The council unanimously approved the request.

Residents, union leaders and council members also criticized how the city manager’s proposal left out plans for constructing a fire station in Mission Valley. The council decided to embargo maintenance funds for Qualcomm Stadium for 30 days so that city staff could figure out the feasibility of directing that money toward building a fire station in the rapidly growing part of town.

The council also waived a requirement known as the Mission Bay Ordinance, which mandates that the city spend $1.4 million of the lease money paid by the bay’s tenants on improvements to the park’s infrastructure and maintenance. Instead, the council agreed to halve the amount. Council members Michael Zucchet and Donna Frye, whose districts both contain parts of Mission Bay, voted against waiving the ordinance.

Frye and others also expressed frustration that the amount of unrestricted money on loan to redevelopment projects like the Centre City Development Corp. is more than the $1.08 million the council asked the downtown agency to pay back.

“My frustration stems from the fact that I believe there is money we can get back this year from the redevelopment agencies. We would be able to fund and at least maintain basic services until we work out the pension mess,” Frye said, referring to the SDCERS deficit, which is estimated to be at least $1.37 billion.

– EVAN McLAUGHLIN, Voice Staff Writer

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at evan.mclaughlin@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

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