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California lawmakers face obstacles to limiting many city pensions

April 13, 2012 |  5:12 pm

As state lawmakers consider proposals to reduce pension costs in California, they face legal obstacles to restricting the retirement benefits enjoyed by many local officials, including some city council members, experts warned Friday.

A legislative committee meeting in Chino indicated that one of the issues it will consider in developing a pension reform plan is whether state and local elected officials should be allowed to participate in public retirement plans.

About a quarter of California’s 482 cities, including Los Angeles, have adopted charters that regulate compensation for elected officials, including pension benefits. Lawmakers would not be able to change  pension benefits for charter cities that have their own retirement systems, local officials told the Legislature’s Conference Committee on Public Employee Pensions.

"There would at least be a question. I think there would at least be a court case on it," said Dwight Stenbakken, deputy executive director of the League of California Cities.

The Legislative Analyst's Office confirmed at the hearing that a state constitutional amendment approved by California voters would be required to change pensions for local elected officials.

Cutting pension benefits to those officials could result in some qualified people deciding not to run for critical offices, including county sheriff, others warned.

 "We would not want to reduce the pool of qualified candidates for office," said Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties, adding, "We believe this issue is best determined locally."

State legislators elected after 1990 are not eligible for a public pension, but one issue the committee will consider is whether to also stop providing retirement benefits to other state officials, including the governor.

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-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento

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