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Panel holds off vote on union dispute over pension, retirement rules

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This post has been corrected and updated. See the note at the bottom for details.

A city panel charged with deciding the next step in a labor union challenge to a benefits rollback for city employees postponed their vote Monday, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars hanging in the balance.

In October 2012, Los Angeles City Council members voted to scale back pension benefits and increase the retirement age for city workers hired after July 1, 2013. The move was intended to save the city $4.3 billion over 30 years. 

However, the Coalition of L.A. City Unions argue the council violated the city's labor relations law by approving the changes without formal negotiations.

Before the unions' challenge can even be considered though, a five-member panel that resolves labor disputes at City Hall needs to decide whether the case can be dismissed on a technicality. 

The Employee Relations Board met Monday to determine whether the union coalition failed to meet a procedural deadline for challenging the pension rollback.

Last month, a Los Angeles employee relations officer recommended the panel dismiss the challenge because the unions' missed a deadline. The city said the decision had already been made before the council vote in October, so the union complaint filed in December 2012 was after the 90-day deadline.

The panel, however, was not convinced.  

"I can't recall a case where it was this muddled," said board Chairman R. Doug Collins at the meeting Monday. 

Panel members decided they didn't have enough information to make a decision. Instead, they requested another report from a hearing officer that would focus on when the 90 days should go into effect, and also on a decision made by the California Public Employees Relations Board they thought would help them understand the precedent for the case.  

"We definitely view that as a victory," said Anthony Segall, the attorney representing the union coalition, in an interview. He said he thought that board members finding the deadline issue unclear was a good sign. 

However, city Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, a high-level budget official who recommended the pension changes, said in an interview he was hopeful the board would side with the city in the end. 

"Pension reform was a big part of bringing the city back in stronger financial health," he said. "It is our expectation that the ERB will ultimately vote in a way that supports the city's position. The outcome of this new pension care results in billions of dollars worth of savings over the next 30 years for taxpayers."

[For the record, 4:36 p.m. PST, Jan. 27: A previous version of this post and headline said the city panel was considering hiring rules for Department of Water and Power employees. The panel was actually considering a pension rollback and a hike in the retirement age for all other city employees.]  

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