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Retirement bonus postponed again

A decision on whether to grant an early retirement bonus program for employees has been postponed a second time, with the faculty union alleging a conflict of interest.

The Governing Board’s decision whether or not to approve the Supplementary Early Retirement Plan, also known as the SERP, is now set for May 12 after its members review the union’s documents.

The faculty union members said they sought legal counsel the day before the SERP, a bonus equaling 75 percent of someone’s salary to retire early, was scheduled for a vote by Palomar’s elected, five-member Governing Board during its April 28 meeting.

Both sides are considering a new rehire plan that would cut the time in half, meaning it would only take four months to hire replacement employees.

The union members sent a letter to the Governing Board proposing President Robert Deegan, Vice President of Instruction Berta Cuaron and Vice President of Human Resources John Tortarolo not take part in the bonus alleging that their job roles provided a conflict of interest in negotiating their own financial contracts.

By approving the SERP, it could “expose representatives of the District to criminal liability,” according to the email sent by the union co-president Shannon Lienhart.

Lienhart’s reasoning behind the allegations of a conflict of interest concerning Deegan, Cuaron and Tortarolo is because they were involved in crafting the SERP and also have invested financial interest in its approval, she said in emails.

Tortarolo, the lead negotiator for the district, was unavailable for comment until after the next Governing Board meeting, according to his secretary. Traditionally, Palomar officials decline to comment on issues where lawsuits might be pending.

Teresa Laughlin, lead negotiator of the union, said the conflict of interest is because the three named officials made changes to the SERP after they had chosen to take it.

“When it becomes a conflict of interest is after you take the SERP, that’s when people are no longer supposed to be part of determining the assumptions,” Laughlin said. She noted that she and another union negotiator signed a contract refusing to take the SERP even though they were eligible.

The other issue with the early retirement is the plan on how to replace retirees. Laughlin said the initial assumptions were a full and immediate placement of classified staff. Then districts officials changed their minds in early April, saying it would take eight months for rehiring to save the college more money. Laughlin said this was a shift of around $2 million from the initial numbers were drafted.

Palomar employees had until April 3 to sign up to retire. Many on the campus said they are furious that, after a month, they still don’t know if they can afford to retire June 30.

Angry emails have been sent from faculty and staff because of the union’s statements and many staffers have come forward at the Governing Board meetings to complain publicly.

Bruce Bishop, a speech professor, spoke to the Governing Board and has been active on all-staff emails as well.

“It appears our (union) leadership is trying to throw out as many objections and allegations as possible, without regard for truth, ethics, accuracy, or the impact on those who have faithfully served this college … The efforts of the (union) have created a toxic climate that will exist long after we are gone,” Bishop said via email.

Bishop declined to talk to The Telescope in person and referred to the emails he already sent out.

The SERP decision was first postponed on April 13 because of a conflict regarding the timeframe to rehire classified staff.

The union and classified staff members have said they believed the SERP should not get passed until the rehiring issue was resolved. Now the issue of legality is brought into question.

Laughlin said she is worried about the district being sued and it was the union’s duty to warn the Governing Board members. The members could be charged criminally, she said.

During negotiations last year, one stipulation the classified staff had was they would only participate in the SERP if the staff retiring would be hired back as soon as possible, Aaron Holmes, classified staff president, said during the April 13 Governing Board meeting.

When the numbers came out in mid-April on how much money Palomar would save because of the SERP, they showed if Palomar rehired staff immediately it would not save the college money. The only reason the numbers show the college would save money is if the staff positions are not filled in for eight months.

This is one of the reasons the SERP was postponed at first.

Laughlin said the District has come up with a new rehiring plan for staff, which will be brought up at the May 12 Governing Board meeting. Instead of eight months, the plan is to allow four months to rehire.

The last time Palomar officials looked at an early retirement, it was in 2004, when then-College president Sherill L. Amador took the incentive according to public affairs documents from the California State University department. She announced her retirement before the SERP was brought to the board for initial approval.

The eight others who opted in the early retirement were the vice president of human resources, deans, directors and faculty members.

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