Judge extends order blocking pension cuts Former county officials sue to stop reduction plan

January 03, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge temporarily extended a court order yesterday to prevent the county from slashing retirement benefits for former appointed and elected officials.

Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. agreed to extend for 10 days an injunction signed Dec. 20. The ruling is for 12 former county officials who are suing to block a county ordinance that would trim their pension benefits by up to 25 percent.

The suit contends that County Executive John G. Gary's measure to reduce benefits retroactively for participants in the appointed and elected officials' pension plan is a breach of contract.

"If the county can do it to the A&E plan, they can do it to the police and fire plans, they can do it to the correctional officers, they can do it to the county general pension plan," said Glenn M. Cooper, the plaintiffs' attorney.

Mr. Cooper also asked Judge Thieme to allow his clients to receive benefits at the level adopted in the 1989 plan during the four to six months it is expected to take lawyers to prepare their arguments. Judge Thieme said he would rule later on that request.

David Plymyer, the deputy county attorney, said he intended to question 40 witnesses before the trial and would show that county officials acted improperly in enacting the pension plan in 1989.

"There was a pattern of behavior here for a seven-year span in which people placed money in their own hands," he said.

Former County Executive O. James Lighthizer testified yesterday that he did not personally benefit in any way from the pension package he proposed in 1989. He said he sweetened the package to encourage key appointees to stay with his administration through the end of his second term in 1990.

"We had a real first-rate group of people in place, and one of the concerns I had was keeping them in place until we completed our agenda," Mr. Lighthizer said.

His plan dropped the retirement age from 60 to 50 for anyone with five years of service, allowed younger workers to retire after 16 years and allowed employees to count service with other government jurisdictions toward their years of service.

Joseph Novotny, former county auditor, said the plan ran into fiscal problems in later years when former County Executive Robert R. Neall, who succeeded Mr. Lighthizer, hired numerous high-level appointees with years of state government service.

They transferred their time in state service, without any state funds being conveyed to cover the county's added pension obligations, said Mr. Novotny, who retired in 1994 and is a plaintiff in the suit.

He said his annual benefits would be trimmed from $56,000 to $41,000 if the 1989 measure is repealed. "If you take $15,000 away from anyone, it's going to harm him," he said.

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