Four years of a wrongheaded pursuit by St. Petersburg officials is finally over. After being slapped down twice by the courts, the city will return money that hundreds of former city police officers had contributed to the city pension fund. Unfortunately, city taxpayers are the ones left holding the bill for legal fees.
Six of the wronged officers sued in 2006 after the city refused to return their money. The city had a policy that it didn't return contributions if officers left the department before becoming vested at 10 years. The six officers believed the policy violated state law. Their case eventually was given class-action status, involving a total of 351 former officers hired since March 1999 who had contributed a total of $1.5 million to the fund.
In August 2009, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Linda R. Allan ruled that the city owed the officers refunds. Allan noted that the city's policy requiring officers to forfeit their contributions was contrary to state law and that St. Petersburg was the only city in the state with such a requirement.
That should have been a clue to city officials and City Attorney John Wolfe that they should reverse course. Instead, the city chose to appeal. In July, the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld Allan's ruling unanimously and also rejected the city's claims that it simply couldn't pay back the money. Even after the DCA defeat, the city didn't immediately concede but discussed another appeal.
That's off the table now. Within the next few weeks, the city will refund the $1.5 million to the 351 officers, drawing it from the pension fund. The city also may be required to pay the plaintiffs' six-figure legal fees and in December will find out from a judge whether the city also owes the officers the interest earned over the years.
The whole ordeal strains an already thin city budget. It all could have been avoided with better legal advice from the city attorney's office. City Council members and Mayor Bill Foster should be asking themselves why six police officers who read the state pension law were able to conclude the city policy was illegal, but the city attorney's office apparently did not. Foster said this week he is "not going to second-guess," but someone should.
Next month the City Council will vote on changes to its pension plan to fix the problems that led to the lawsuit. However, the plaintiffs' attorney, Jean Kwall of Clearwater, already has concerns that a couple of the proposed changes may not comply with state law.
Perhaps the city should listen.