Township to appeal judge’s ruling on pension issue

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published September 27, 2012

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — If a township employee hadn’t been paying into the pension fund for a period of time, that employee is unable to receive pension credit for that time.

It doesn’t state that verbatim in the township’s contract with the union, but it’s an understanding that township officials never questioned.

Until around 2010, when issues surrounding the pension system were brought to the forefront by a terminated employee and a former employee.

The Board of Trustees at the time decided some tweaking to the contract was long overdue. For some 40 years, members of AFSCME Local 1103.14 in Harrison Township had been under the impression that the system allowed members to still obtain pension credits during times when they hadn’t been contributing.

When the township, under the leadership of former Supervisor Anthony Forlini, now a state representative for District 24, decided to make the clarifications two years ago, the union filed a grievance after pleas to leave the contract the same and reward deserved credits were ignored.

According to the Union’s Chapter Chair Kelly Geml, township officials went ahead and adjusted the contract to word it more clearly for union members even after the union had attempted to set up negotiations. She said the grievance was also ignored, specifically by Forlini, who she said was too busy running his campaign at the time to help out the union.

Forlini is currently running for re-election.

“They removed service credits for maternity leave. There were disability issues, as well,” said Geml, an administrative assistant at the Harrison Township Fire Department for 23 years. “The union clearly had problems with it (the change in structure) after so long.”

Robert Fetter, an attorney for AFSCME Council 25, Local 1103.14, said there is a clause in the union contract that states if the township does not answer to or respond to a grievance, it ultimately loses the case.

But that’s not the case here, said current Supervisor Ken Verkest.

“You can’t complain for something that’s not in the contract,” he said, adding that no changes were made in the contract, only clarification because the way it was had been ambiguous and left to interpretation. “You can’t grieve an invalid argument.”

In addition, Verkest explained that it wasn’t the Harrison Township Board of Trustees that clarified the meaning of the contract, but rather the Pension Board, which is an independent body of five members: two representatives from the Board of Trustees, a retired township employee, one current employee, and an unaffiliated resident of the township with extensive experience and knowledge of the pension system.

Verkest said a response was then not required by the township, though he admits some kind of acknowledgement should have been made.

Two cases involving two former employees who had been re-hired and the pension system  went before two separate arbitrators, each of whom declared decisions in the township’s favor; that the employees could not get pension credit for time not working and not paying into the fund. The township follows the same rules for leaves of absence involving illness and maternity leave.

After arbitration, Fetter took the case to a circuit court judge. On Sept. 20, after close to two years, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge John Foster decided that the union’s complaint was valid, and the township is subject to follow the rules it always had.

The Harrison Township Board of Trustees on Sept. 24 voted to appeal the case.

Verkest said Foster has a history of ruling in favor of unions, but he nonetheless feels this verdict was an “error.”

“I don’t blame the union for wanting those years of service credit,” said Verkest. “But two arbitrators had come to the same conclusion. If you’re not putting in (the pension fund), you’re not getting credit.

“We feel confident that Judge Foster’s decision wasn’t a good one, so we’re taking it to a higher court.”