Friday, October 7, 2011
Superior Court Offers Commissioners Incentive to Step Down
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Superior Court yesterday announced that it is offering its commissioners an incentive to step down before the end of the year.
Presiding Judge Lee Edmon explained that “because of the budget reductions we’ve had so far, and the number of employees lost…we’re not able to support all the courtrooms we’re currently operating,” and so the Voluntary Separation Program is being offered as part of the court’s “efforts to adjust operations” in light of its $85 million shortfall.
In a memorandum to all judicial officers from Edmon yesterday, she noted that the court laid off 329 employees last April and has lost more than 550 employees over the past two years through layoff and attrition. Last month court officials announced that it was preparing to lay off over 600 employees next October, and another 400 in April 2014.
Edmon, in her memorandum, said the “[o]ngoing restructuring of court operations requires rebalancing of our judicial and staff complements,” and that “the Voluntary Separation Program for Commissioners is a way to accelerate attrition toward this end.”
She praised the court’s commissioners as being “among the best and brightest judicial officers in the nation,” and said it “pains [her] greatly” to implement the program, which was “adopted…only because of the extremity of the situation we are currently in.”
The program entails a one-time payment of six-months salary to as many as 30 commissioners who voluntarily separate from court service effective Dec. 30, a court spokesperson said.
Any of the court’s 109 full-time commissioners in good standing are eligible to participate, and must inform the court before the close of business Nov. 21 if they wish to participate, the spokesperson added.
The court is also entering into discussions with employee representatives for a similar program for court reporters with identical terms, Edmon said yesterday during a phone interview, although “a decision has not been made yet” as to whether referees will also be offered a separation incentive.
She noted that the program is “cost-neutral to the court,” in that the incentive payment is equal to the amount the court would have paid the participating employees in salary if they remained employed through the end of the fiscal year, but starting in fiscal year 2012-13, the court would realize $7,071,570 in savings annually if 30 commissioners opt to separate. If 30 court reporters participate in the incentive program for them, the court stands to save an additional $3.6 million the next fiscal year, Edmon said.
Those who choose to participate would be eligible to return to the court after a period of three years, Edmon added.
She said that the court leadership “will wait to see if people are interested in doing it” before implementing other possible cost-saving measures, as “this is only one piece of the budget plan.”
Commissioners contacted yesterday were reluctant to discuss the program. Of those who could be reached yesterday, four declined any comment, two said they had not had a chance to see the memorandum describing the program yet, and one—Commissioner Patricia Ito—said she “hadn’t had time to assess it.”
Commissioners Martin Gladstein, Jeffrey M. Harkavy and Alan Friedenthal disclosed that they were not planning to participate in the program.
Harkavy remarked that the voluntary separation program was an “unprecedented” move by the court, as far as he was aware, although he thought it provided an opportunity for “downsizing in a way that has the least impact on the courts as well as the public we serve” by giving his colleagues who “might be close to retirement, or considering retirement in the near future, an opportunity to take a retirement now, resulting in a cost-savings to the court.”
He added that he is “too young” to participate, but being in his early 50s, he does not “get to use that phrase too often, so I’ll take the opportunity now.”
Friedenthal declined to comment on the program itself “out of respect for the leadership of the court,” because “it’s a personnel issue,” and because he is a member of the California Judges Association’s board of directors, and did not want anything he said mistaken as representing the views of that organization.
In light of the implementation of this incentive program, Edmon said she anticipated that the court is “not going to be sending out any new ballots” to elect new commissioners.
The last commissioner election was in July, and resulted in then-Police Department Inspector General Nicole Bershon and Deputy District Attorney Eloise Phillips being selected to join the bench.
Phillips later declined to take the position, and Edmon said at the time that the prosecutor had been “concerned about the future of her position, and being the newest commissioner on the job.”
Edmon related that she had assured Phillips that “the last thing in the world we would want to do is lay off a commissioner,” but “we couldn’t give her any guarantees.”
The court already lost one commissioner this month when Robert S. Wada stepped down from the bench to become the court’s supervising probate attorney, effective Oct. 1, court officials said.
Efforts to reach Wada this week were unsuccessful.
The judiciary’s budget woes have affect commissioners in other courts, most prominently in San Francisco, where eight commissioners, along with 59 other employees, were laid off on Friday.
The San Francisco Superior Court had initially issued layoff notices to 175 employees, including 11 of its 12 commissioners, in July, but was able to recall some of those notices after receiving a $2.5 million emergency loan from the Judicial Council.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company