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Unions worried over voided pension plan

Judge Beverly rules negotiations in 2001 violated Florida's Sunshine Law

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Pension reform for Jacksonville police and firefighters hit another setback after the City Council rejected a pension reform package Wednesday night.

Circuit Court judge Thomas Beverly -- in a surprise move to many parties involved in the pension debate -- declared Jacksonville's 30-year pension deal, which was signed in 2001, null and void Thursday.

Randy Wyse, head of the local fire union, was more than surprised.

"Our members are now what? My phone's been blowing up. We're going to stay calm. It doesn't change any benefits. But it surely does add one more drive to a nail that my members have been dealing with for seven years, which is pension reform," Wyse said.

The legal challenge was filed against the city of Jacksonville and the Police and Fire Pension Fund by Curt Lee and the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County after Mayor Alvin Brown's first agreement with the pension fund was found to be in violation because it was negotiated behind closed doors.

"It is a complete victory for the citizens and taxpayers of Jacksonville," said John Winkler of Concerned Taxpayers.

While Beverly's order voids the current agreement, he added that existing pension benefits and terms remain in effect under the "status quo" doctrine.

"Current levels of public employee benefits cannot be changed until they are collectively bargained differently, or the public employer determines new benefits with the acquiescence of the bargaining agents," Beverly wrote.

Rod Sullivan is a Jacksonville attorney who questions whether the current plan will in fact remain the same under the "status quo" doctrine. He said that doctrine requires the terms to go to the last agreement that was legally negotiated.

"I think what the judge has said, if he sets aside the agreement, is going to create a huge mess. But there's no huge mess doctrine. I mean the doctrine says if you have a void agreement that you negotiated out of sunshine that agreement can't take effect. So I think what the judge has said is he doesn't want to create the turmoil from setting aside this agreement. But I don't think he has a choice," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the last agreement that was legally negotiated in pension was from 1993 to 2001. He believes this "status quo" doctrine will make the current plan default back to those terms. This is something all sides are currently looking at.

COURT DOCUMENT: Judge Beverly's order voiding pension agreement

Beverly enjoined the city and pension fund's board of trustees from negotiating any future pension benefits "without reasonable notice to the public, the taking of minutes of such meetings, opening such meetings to the public, and otherwise complying with Section 447.605(2) and Section 286.11, Florida Statutes."

The ruling also says future negotiations must be negotiated between the city and the unions, bypassing the pension fund's board of trustees.

The mayor's office said they learned of the decision midday Thursday.

"We are reviewing the decision to see if it creates new opportunities to achieve pension reform," city spokesman David DeCamp said.

RELATED: What's next for police and pension?

John Keane, executive director of the Police and Fire Pension Fund said they were also reviewing the order.

"We contacted our attorneys; they are reviewing it and they will be advising the board of the next step in a long legal process," Keane said.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, wasn't ready to comment, but Randy Wyse of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters said they were getting calls from concerned union members about whether their benefits would be affected.

This development comes as City Council denied approving a modified pension agreement in a 9-9 tie vote, which means the mayor's office and the Police and Fire Pension Fund must negotiate a new agreement. It is widely considered to be a urgent issue for the city because there is currently a $1.7 billion deficit in the pension fund and contributions to it are consuming a larger portion of the city's tax revenue every year.

"(It) forces the two unions to sit down with the city at the negotiating table to talk about what pension rights are going to be, not just for future employees, but for existing employees," Winkler said.

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Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.