Friday, Dec. 15, 2006 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre did not get his Christmas wish Thursday. Actually, there’s no way it would have come true before the holiday, but there was a chance he could have bedded down for a long winter’s nap with a slight hope of winning the biggest case of his life.

But Aguirre always knows he’s right. So, that means he’ll always have hope.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that Judge Jeffrey Barton gutted the city attorney’s case Thursday. Barton, however, did so very stoically – like a hunter, who wanted to show his dead prey how much he respected it.

And with that, some points about the ruling.

  • This passage in the decision, is, of course, the key one in what was actually the city’s contention – not just Aguirre’s:

The legal principles the City uses to challenge the benefits in this action appear to be one of the few available mechanisms to do so under the remedies in the state court system. Despite the creative use of these principles and the excellent presentation of the case at trial by the City, previous inconsistent positions taken by the City before the filing of the cross-complaint raise significant obstacles to the City’s current effort to undo the remaining pension benefits.

First off, a couple of people have told me – and another reminded me today – that judges and lawyers don’t just write things. Every word they write in an official context means something.

So what do these mean?

Aguirre has, at times, had some choice words for Barton. So why would Barton go out of his way to compliment the city attorney?

I would guess he did so to try to give Aguirre a way to drop this thing with his chin up. Walk away, he told Aguirre. Blame the past city attorney and City Council for passing laws that entrenched these agreements with such fortitude that even mobilizing the entire City Attorney’s Office isn’t enough to budge them.

Too bad, that’s just not going to happen. When Aguirre thinks he’s right, he won’t drop it.

AUDIO: Lewis: I don’t see a third way
  • Barton knew that Aguirre might appeal, so he placed some strategic footnotes in the ruling.

The footnote on the bottom of page 20 appears to be a thinly veiled message to an appellate court judge who may have to review Barton’s findings. It’s pretty arcane stuff, but basically it’s saying that, even if an appellate court doesn’t think that previous legal settlements were enough of an obstacle for Aguirre, there are legislative ones as well:

The City cites no authority for the proposition that the continuation of an earlier benefit from a previous MOU that is incorporated in a new MOU after a new round of the meet and confer process under the MMBA can be set aside based on a Gov. Code Sec. 1090 violation affecting the earlier agreement but not the current one.

I know, that’s a tough sentence to digest, but it means the judge felt he had a lot of ammunition to destroy Aguirre’s push to get rid of the first set of disastrous pension benefit enhancements granted in 1996.

The MMBA is the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act. It’s the California law that governs labor relations.

See, Aguirre has been working on the assumption that the city’s pension board members acted illegally by manipulating the system and finding a way to boost their own benefits.

Because that was illegal, Aguirre alleged that the agreements they put in place could be voided.

But what Barton said in that passage was that there were many more agreements after the main one that Aguirre argued was illegal. And those, no one ever said were illegal.

  • I still think I had it right here. Barton let us know months ago that this is what he was thinking.

Here was his pointed question to Aguirre six months ago:

If the City is seeking to set aside the pension portion of the agreements with its employees, can they do so without setting aside the entirety of the collective bargaining agreements covering more than 10 years and involving thousands of current and past employees?

Aguirre couldn’t, or didn’t, answer this question well.

The argument Aguirre found himself in was a tough one to win. He had basically gotten the city to sue itself. The judge never understood how the city could sue itself. If it thought its employee pension benefits were too high, it should just lower them. If it can’t, then it shouldn’t have granted them to begin with.

A taxpayer should have brought Aguirre’s suit and not argued all of this complicated junk about pension board members having conflicts of interest. The taxpayer should have sued and argued that the city repeatedly, and illegally, went into debt without asking its residents to approve that debt with a vote.

And that brings up my last point.

  • For all the people that are cheering Aguirre’s setback right now, you should also be prepared to cheer for either tax and revenue increases of some kind or bankruptcy. Aguirre’s was the last easy-way-out route. City councils, over the last decade, have handed out pension enhancements to employees that they didn’t plan on providing the funds to pay. That means residents have to come up with money now.

Either that, or we throw up our hands and declare bankruptcy.

There is no third way.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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