On Thursday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry made an audacious move. He ordered that former Police and Fire Pension Fund (PFPF) head John Keane’s pension be cut.
In doing so, as readers will see, the mayor reasserted the primacy of the executive branch over the PFPF, in a quest to protect taxpayer dollars, and to finally bring closure to this ongoing drama ahead of the Aug. 30 pension tax referendum.
“Per discussions w/Jason [Gabriel, the General Counsel] and his most recent legal opinion/summary on Keane, City of Jax, PFPF, please coordinate efforts to handle this matter immediately. STOP the unauthorized SSVRP [Senior Staff Voluntary Retirement Plan] pay-outs and it its place issue GEPP [General Employee Pension Plan] equivalent equitable retirement benefit,” writes Curry.
“Doing so will alleviate the need for us to pursue litigation. Jason, by copy of this email, I am asking you to dismiss the case,” Curry adds, saying the administration would “brief City Council on this matter ASAP.”
Sam Mousa replied that he would “proceed as directed.” Gabriel, meanwhile, said that his office would “proceed” also “after today’s shade meeting and briefing with Council.”
This lends clarity to the city’s position on a showdown with Keane, the former executive director of the PFPF.
A settlement agreement was rejected by City Council earlier in 2016, and Thursday’s was to be the second shade meeting to discuss litigation.
Curry, in a phone conversation with FloridaPolitics.com, explained the timing of the move and the thought process behind it.
“Council’s been dealing with [this since] before I came in,” said Curry, “carrying the load,” even as the “previous administration” didn’t prioritize action on the issue, either because it didn’t care or didn’t understand the issue.
Curry, who’s been “working with Council on this issue,” made the decision to ask “pointed questions.”
“I’m a process guy,” Curry related, and after Gabriel confirmed he had the authority and the right to take action, the mayor made the move to “protect taxpayers and move on.”
Curry asserted that it’s no longer “business as usual” in the executive branch, and since he had the “authority” and the “right” to do this, he was going to do this to “protect taxpayers.”
When asked if he was prepared for legal action from the PFPF, Curry had three words, comprised of nine letters.
“Let them sue.”
Contacted by phone, PFPF Interim Executive Director Beth McCague was taken by surprise.
“I had no idea,” McCague said, of the change in Keane’s pension terms, though she was aware there would be a “motion by the city to voluntarily dismiss the case.”
“These matters are beyond me,” McCague said, referring this writer to Jake Schickel, the Pension Fund’s attorney.
What is clear: the city’s General Counsel, Jason Gabriel, believes that the PFPF has demonstrated “perpetual disregard” for the legal primacy of the General Counsel’s office, something that goes back to the illegal creation of the Senior Staff Voluntary Retirement Plan in 2000, as he wrote in a seven-page letter that outlined the history.
Gabriel noted that, on numerous occasions, the PFPF undermined the binding legal opinions of the General Counsel’s office, including disregarding a 2012 binding legal opinion that said the Pension Fund Board was “not authorized to create the SSVRP,” and a 2013 letter advising the fund to cease making payments under the SSVRP.
Those opinions were disregarded. Pension reform of 2015 didn’t address the issue; Council reserved the right to look into the issue further.
And Gabriel was not thrilled either: “A General Counsel opinion loses both its value and integrity as binding if an independent agency such as the PFPF Board can ignore such advice merely because another attorney disagrees with the General Counsel. Such a reading is anathema to the Charter and in direct contradiction to the very founding documents of the City.”
Council then rejected a settlement offer in 2016, setting the stage for the litigation that Curry’s directive headed off.
Gabriel asserted, in his letter, that Curry had every right to impose a change in terms.
“In light of the above, it is my opinion that the unauthorized SSVRP pension benefits should be immediately discontinued … in the event that the unauthorized SSVRP pension benefits are discontinued, the plan participants be provided retirement benefits as if they had been participating in the City’s General Employees Retirement Plan during the time period that they were participating in the unauthorized SSVRP.”
Gabriel added that “the City, as the ultimate insurer and taxing authority responsible for funding City pension plans, has the power to halt or modify unlawfully funded pension payouts being made by the City. As the chief executive and administrative officer of the consolidated government , you have the authority to affect such directive in accordance with all applicable Federal, State and Local Law.”
Curry took his General Counsel at his word.