September 27, 2008

Council 94, Governor Claim Court Victories

By Steve Peoples

The two parties in a suit over health-care benefits for retired state employees disagree over yesterday's ruling by a Superior Court judge.

PROVIDENCE -- The state's largest public-employee union and Governor Carcieri are back in court.

But the outcome of yesterday's sudden Superior Court hearing was up in the air last night, as both sides claimed at least partial victory.

The governor's office and Council 94, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, agree on one thing: there was a Superior Court hearing yesterday afternoon in Newport.

The meeting with Judge Edward Clifton was the result of an 11th- hour motion by the labor union seeking to block a new state law that reduces health benefits for state workers retiring after Sept. 30. The looming change has led to an exodus of more than 1,100 state workers since May.

Late yesterday afternoon, Carcieri released a statement suggesting that Clifton had ruled in his favor, effectively rejecting the union's request and allowing the new law to stay in effect.

"I am pleased with Judge Clifton's decision to deny the temporary restraining order filed by Council 94. This decision upholds the state's ability to proceed with the implementation of the changes to the public employees' retirement health care," Carcieri said in the statement. "The change was one measure recommended by me, and passed by the General Assembly, in response to the state's fiscal crisis."

But Council 94 representatives, reached in the early evening for comment, didn't share the governor's version of the day's events.

Judge Clifton simply declined to take up the issue immediately, according to union spokesman James Cenerini. Council 94 plans to pursue the matter Monday morning in Superior Court, Providence, he said.

"My attorney was very clear that the judge stated that he was not granting the motion, he was not denying the motion and he was not ruling on the motion," Cenerini said.

Judiciary spokesman Craig Berke could not immediately clarify Clifton's ruling. "I put in a call to the judge, but have not heard back from him," Berke said.

As part of a deficit-avoidance package, the General Assembly earlier in the year changed state law to reduce retiree health-care benefits for all state employees who retire after Sept. 30. Since the change became law in May, a total of 1,134 people have either retired or submitted paperwork initiating the retirement process, according to the state treasurer's office.

A motion filed by Council 94 yesterday -- on behalf of three longtime state employees -- essentially argues that the new law is unconstitutional and violates contractual provisions.

"The changes have forced employees ... to retire before they had originally planned on retiring," reads the court complaint. "Anyone who retires after September 30, 2008, will be subject to drastically different retirement-health-insurance benefits."

Asked why Council 94 sued the governor to block the new law after so many state workers had already retired, Cenerini noted several weeks of intense legal battles with the governor's office over a separate contractual dispute.

"It was simply a matter of timing. We wanted to do it earlier," Cenerini said. "We have been very active and busy fighting for our members."

A string of court proceedings began after Council 94 members overwhelmingly rejected a new four-year contract in July.

The governor then announced a plan to impose higher health- insurance rates on those employees to save an estimated $10 million in the state budget. That move prompted the union to take the administration to court in a legal battle that eventually found its way to the state Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams last month eventually ordered the Republican administration and Council 94 to settle the dispute first through mediation -- essentially a discussion between the two parties mediated by a neutral person -- and if that were to fail, through arbitration -- a more formalized trial-like process in which both sides present witnesses and evidence.

Mediation failed earlier in the month. Arbitration is about to begin, according to Cenerini.

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Originally published by Steve Peoples, Journal State House Bureau.

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