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In a 1996 legal memo, then-City Attorney John Witt’s office reached an opposite conclusion about the definition of a “majority vote” than the opinion released yesterday by the current city attorney, Jan Goldsmith, which set off a firestorm of activity around City Hall.

At issue is a provision in the city charter saying changes to retirement benefits require “the approval of a majority vote of the members of said system.” Goldsmith has opined the provision requires a majority of the eligible voters — not just the actual voters — to sign off on a change.

Because that didn’t happen when the Deferred Retirement Option Plan went to a vote in 1997, Goldsmith said the ordinance was never properly enacted and the city could thus change it without an employee vote.

In 1996, Deputy City Attorney Sharon Marshall, responding to a similar question raised about a different pension vote, concluded otherwise:

To interpret “majority vote” as a majority of all voters who are eligible to vote would invalidate many elections where voter turn-out is low. Democracy, as we know it, would thus come to a halt.

Marshall focused on a case involving the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Marshall said participants who didn’t vote are “deemed to have agreed with the majority opinion of those who did vote.”

RANI GUPTA

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