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Judge Strikes 'Poison Pill' from Prop. B

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold E. Kahn, pictured at a civics training institute for teachers
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold E. Kahn, pictured at a civics training institute for teachers
Rest of pension reform measure will appear on San Francisco ballot

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold E. Kahn has stricken what unions had dubbed a “poison pill” provision in the Proposition B pension and health-benefit reform measure, but has otherwise cleared the initiative to appear on the ballot in November.

The Monday morning decision was a defeat for the public-employee unions, which had argued that the “poison pill” — which would have effectively frozen city employee wages for five years if anyone mounted a post-election legal challenge to Prop. B — and other elements of Proposition B should keep the measure off the ballot entirely. The unions have vowed to file suit again if the measure passes.

Proposition B is emerging as one of the most contentious issues in the coming election. Its author, city Public Defender Jeff Adachi, says that the measure will save the city between $120 million and $170 million annually by requiring city employees to contribute more to their pension and health-care costs.

Judge Kahn had indicated at a hearing on Friday that he would strike the “poison pill” language from the measure. Freezing wage increases for five years, he said, would make public employees reluctant to challenge the measure in court if it passes.

In his Monday decision, Judge Kahn wrote, “[T]he poison pill imposes an unwarranted and wholly disproportional burden on the right to seek redress from the courts. Fidelity to the important right to petition demands that the poison pill be eliminated now, before its ‘chill’ takes effect.”

Judge Kahn found that the "poison pill" provision was severable from Prop. B because it was not the central point of the measure. He instructed the Board of Elections to strike two sentences and three phrases from the text of Prop. B before it is printed in the ballot.

In court on Friday, Adachi said that the intent of the “poison pill” language was to prevent city officials from sweetening public employees’ compensation packages without voter input.

Adachi was at a funeral for retired Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Desmond, and was not immediately available for comment. In an e-mailed statement, he celebrated the fact that Prop. B will still appear on the ballot: “This is an important victory for the people of this City. Now, the voters of San Francisco, not special interests, will finally have a choice on how their tax dollars are spent on pensions for city workers. By voting yes on Prop B the taxpayers will get some relief in carrying the entire burden of having to fork over more and more taxpayer dollars each year to meet the unsustainable demand of public employee pensions.”

In a statement, union attorney Peter Saltzman said: "We would have preferred that the Judge remove the entire initiative, but we expect that San Franciscans will vote Prop B down when they learn how seriously flawed it is."

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