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Tuesday, June 28, 2005 | Council hopes lower pay for workers pays off. The San Diego City Council approved 6-to-2 the labor agreements negotiated this spring with four out of the five city workers’ unions Monday. The action highlighted the continued debate surrounding a looming legal challenge to employee benefits and demonstrated the bad blood developed over six months of pension struggles between city and labor officials alike.
Three-year agreements with the Municipal Employees Association and AFSCME Local 127, the white- and blue-collar unions, respectively, and one-year agreements with City Firefighters Local 145 and the newly formed Deputy City Attorney’s Association were ratified, indicating that the concessions agreed to by those labor groups will be implemented next fiscal year, which begins Friday.
The city and the Police Officers Association did not successfully negotiate a new contract, meaning sworn officers will be handed a contract of the City Council’s choosing.
The labor deals finalized Monday include sacrifices by city workers, including a wage freeze, benefit freeze and increased employee contributions to the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System. City Attorney Mike Aguirre, however, believes the pacts overlook the most important concession that he sees fit – the rollback of any illegally created benefits.
Aguirre believes that the concessions won in the labor contracts are inconsequential in the face of a pension deficit estimated to be expanding. This, he said, will continue to consume city services as it did this year until the city is forced into bankruptcy.
“The city has been engaging in improper and unlawful practice of diverting money from the pension plan and using it for non-pension purposes,” Aguirre said. “I cannot in good conscious as your lawyer – even if you don’t want me to be your lawyer, I am your city attorney – say that to perpetuate what has been done is a good idea.”
Several times during Aguirre’s address to the council – in which he lobbied for new union leadership, harkened back to a pro-bono case he argued for laborers in Yuma, Ariz., and revisited a few of the anecdotes he uses in the interim reports his office has issued – the few dozen city employees in the audience hissed, jeered and verbally rebutted the city attorney’s remarks, which prompted Aguirre to ask for order in the council chambers.
“Excuse me, please respect the fact that you’re in City Hall and the City Hall chambers, please,” he said.
Mayor Dick Murphy, the meeting’s presiding officer, had to interrupt the audience’s commotion another time.
“Even though I disagree with Mr. Aguirre, he has a right to be heard,” he said.
Murphy and Councilman Scott Peters stated their belief that a legal challenge to the benefits would be costly and risky.
Council members Donna Frye and Brian Maienschein were the two dissenting votes. Frye said she could not support the agreements because the $163 million the city will pay into the embattled SDCERS fund – which has a shortfall of at least $1.37 billion by all accounts – is enough to “tread water – barely,” she said.
Frye said she wanted more of the deficit to be addressed in the coming fiscal year because the city’s payments into the system are only going to grow every year.
Ann Smith, the attorney representing the 6,000-member MEA, said city workers should be commended and not fought by Aguirre, saying it was “no cause for celebration” given the concessions that were made.
“You all know and have taken responsibility to make a judgment that approving this agreement, which you did, was the right thing to do you for your city and the right contribution to move your city forward,” Smith said at an afternoon rally for MEA members. “It amazes me that every step of the way we’ve met with the resistance and opposition of the city attorney … to aid the city in its recovery.”
Several city workers addressed the council to dispel their belief that city workers are perceived as overpaid and expendable.
“The city manager calls me a ‘budget issue,’ my division head calls me ‘staff,’ my union calls me ‘member,’ my Union-Tribune calls me fat, benefited, overpaid city worker,” water department engineer Jack Canning said. “I’m none of those; I’m a real person. I’m Jack.”
Canning said that the council needed to shift its priorities away from ballparks, political conventions and developers’ interests.
“If you don’t know that, you don’t know Jack,” he said.
Aguirre said he remained optimistic that he was going to iron out the pension fund’s problems.
“It’s very, very hard to change people’s attitudes, but I’m going to try,” Aguirre said.
The contracts are estimated to save the city $150 million off of the pension deficit and create a revenue stream to fund the sale of pension obligation bonds once the city is granted permission back into the public bond market.
Front over multicultural storefront softened. The City Council salvaged 10 of the 27 community service officer positions slated for the budget chopping block by transferring money away from the Police Department’s vehicle budget to pay for the non-sworn liaisons.
Cutting the CSOs from next year’s budget was projected by City Manager Lamont Ewell to save the city $1.8 million. The one-time funding of 10 CSOs was made possible by an alternative set forth by police Chief Bill Landsdowne to shift $703,000 that would otherwise be set aside for the force’s fleet.
Bill Maheu, executive assistant chief of police operations, said that diverting the funding for 20 police vehicles would be able to retain community service officers at $70,000 each, which includes salary and the city’s contribution for employee benefits. More information on the CSOs is available here.
The addition of 10 CSOs – who serve as translators and cultural liaisons to the city’s many immigrant populations – Monday raises the number budgeted for next year to 30, enough for the City Heights multicultural storefront to remain staffed, Maheu said.
“We clearly recognize the value and need of community service officers and for that reason have purposely excluded them from previous civilian workforce reductions,” he said.
Maheu reported that 80 positions have been eliminated from the department over the last two years.
Councilwoman Donna Frye, who was the lone “no” vote on the police budget item, said she believed there was still money available for use from the redevelopment projects, and that the community development block grant, or CDBG, funds loaned to the Centre City Development Corp. could be paid back to cover police expenses that could free up money to restore all of the CSOs.
City Manager Lamont Ewell relayed CCDC’s account that all of the unrestricted loan money to the downtown redevelopment agency had been paid back after the $1.08 million the city approved recently. Frye maintains that the CDBG money can be returned to the city.
Overall, the police budget increased nearly $27 million to $309 million for fiscal year 2006. Nearly $21 million of that change covers the increase in employee fringe benefits – a category comprised overwhelmingly in pension and retiree health benefits paid for by the city.
Click here to see how the pension system’s expense took over this year’s budget.
Face of downtown board redeveloped. The City Council confirmed three members to the Centre City Development Corp.’s board of directors Monday, including current director Robert McNeely.
McNeely, a senior vice president at Union Bank of California, will join real estate broker Gina Champion-Cain and Fredric Maas, president of Black Mountain Ranch LLC, on the board overseeing the city’s downtown redevelopment arm.
Council members and Murphy were asked to vote for three of the five nominees, and that the top three vote-getters would sit on the board. McNeely was given unanimous support with nine votes, Maas collected seven votes, but Champion-Cain and Joyce Summer – a public relations specialist who presides over the citizens committee advising CCDC – tied with six apiece.
Champion-Cain won the runoff by a 5-to-4 vote. Council members Tony Young, Jim Madaffer, Donna Frye, Brian Maienschein and Ralph Inzunza supported Champion-Cain in the tiebreaker.
Several members of the public addressed the council about Summer’s involvement with the Corky McMillin Cos., the controversial developer of the Naval Training Center in Point Loma. Summer is retained by McMillin to perform public relations functions, and some, including City Attorney Mike Aguirre, viewed that as inappropriate. Summer’s critics argued that her activities on behalf of McMillin qualify her as a lobbyist, and that she has not registered accordingly.
Summer said she has never addressed the council on legislative issues. Councilman Michael Zucchet, who nominated Summer, also spoke on her behalf, saying that she was in tune with downtown’s present and future needs because she was a resident there.
Board members receive $50 per meeting, but typically pay the stipend back to provide for refreshments at board meetings and awards for staff.
Former assemblyman and deputy state attorney general Howard Wayne was also nominated, but only received one vote from Frye, who nominated him.
High court decision doesn’t cross Aguirre as helping memorial. Aguirre said he believes the ruling on religious symbols in public spaces that was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday does not help preserve the Mount Soledad Cross.
Aguirre said he interpreted the two cases decided by the nation’s highest court to allow a religious symbol – like the 43-foot memorial in south La Jolla – on public land is if the symbol isn’t conspicuously promoting a religion. The proposed transfer of the cross to the U.S. Government, outlined in Proposition A on the July 26 citywide ballot, is also unconstitutional, the city attorney said.
“It seems to me that the Supreme Court has made it pretty clear now that it would not be proper for the city of San Diego to transfer the cross to federal government because the primary motivation of a transfer is the preservation of a religious symbol,” he said.
The high court ruled 5-to-4 that the state of Texas can continue to display the Ten Commandments at the capitol building because the list of rules documented in the Book of Exodus are depicted as an influence on the state’s constitution, Aguirre said.
Because the 18 monuments and 21 plaques surrounding the Austin, Texas, capitol building pay ode to the commandments in a secular meaning, they are permissible, he said.
In the other decision handed down Monday, the court ruled 5-to-4 that displaying the commandments prominently in two court houses in Kentucky carried an “unmistakably religious” message, which was unacceptable. Aguirre believed the Kentucky case was more applicable to San Diego’s situation.
“In the case of Austin, that case involved a situation where the Ten Commandments were used to remind the public of historical origins of the basic principles that are enshrined in their constitution. That is not the case here,” he said. “The underlying history around the cross is that it has been inserted as a religious message.”
Joshua Gross, a spokesman for San Diegans for the Mt. Soledad National War Memorial, countered Aguirre, saying the cross was being promoted as a tribute to the nation’s military.
“(Chief Justice William) Rehnquist very specifically said that messages with a broader purpose that also have religious content do not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment,” Gross said. “The people of San Diego one way or another will be able to decide this on July 26 when they vote yes on Prop A.”
Gross said promoting the memorial as a religious symbol was yesterday’s news.
“That’s not the marketing strategy, the marketing has been ‘Yes on A – preserve the memorial as it is, where it is.’ ‘Save the Cross’ was from Prop K,” he said, referring to the November ballot measure that failed to safeguard the cross.
Aguirre opined that the memorial could still be saved, but that its running history has been with religious motivation and, when coupled with it being an obvious religious symbol that has already been struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, it will be a difficult task.
“Let’s not be dishonest with each other,” Aguirre said. “The motivation is clearly religious in nature.”
Barely making the Monday cut. And in its last bit of business of the day, the City Council voted to approve the retirement system’s $33 million budget – sort of.
Tomorrow: Murphy’s last meeting, special election fun and frolic, and millions in unbudgeted money for outside consultants, accountants and attorneys.
– EVAN McLAUGHLIN, Voice Staff Writer and ANDREW DONOHUE, Voice Political Writer
Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at