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Thursday, November 10, 2005 | The leader of the largest union of city employees said Wednesday that she was disappointed in some of the “ultimatums” staked out by Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders and she questioned whether Sanders knew enough about the city to make promises he now is committed to fulfill.

Judie Italiano, president of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said in an interview that Sanders had “painted himself into a box” by declaring that he would force city laborers to begin renegotiating their employment contracts within 90 days.

Italiano said she and city employees would be willing to work with the new mayor but she warned that Sanders might not know what he’s up against if his proposals are unacceptable.

“If he pays attention to people who have been around for a while and have good ideas, I think he’ll be fine. If he’s coming in to bulldoze the whole organization and contract everything out, I think he’s got a rude awakening coming,” Italiano said.

The comments marked what may be the beginning of the end of a series of positive reactions from many city interests following Sanders’ decisive victory in the mayoral election Tuesday. Even former rival City Councilwoman Donna Frye has expressed her willingness to support Sanders.

But Sanders, the city’s former police chief, has promised to slash the city’s workforce, outsource some services and create an entirely new pension plan for future city employees – all in an effort to protect the city from bankruptcy. The city now faces a more than $1.37 billion shortfall in its pension system, along with a massive future bill associated to retiree health care costs and numerous deficits in infrastructure maintenance.

Sanders promised to oppose any new tax increases to help the city recover from the current financial crisis.

At a press conference Wednesday, Sanders made a series of other promises – including a plan to commence negotiations with unions like MEA in January. If they do not agree to that, he said during the campaign, he would cut city staff by 10 percent or consider bankruptcy proceedings. MEA representatives and the city agreed to a three-year contract last year, which Sanders has said is not good enough.

“Over the last several years there have been plenty of buck-passing and finger-pointing at City Hall but no one has been willing to step forward and take responsibility for solving problems and moving forward. That changes beginning today,” Sanders said.

At least one union, however, is excited to work with Sanders and his proposals. It’s also one of the unions – the San Diego City Firefighters Local 145 – that won’t face a 10-percent reduction in staff under Sanders’ threat. Sanders has said he will not cut the resources of the police and fire departments.

“This is a great day for San Diego,” said Johnnie Perkins, the firefighters’ government affairs director. Perkins said Sanders’ win, and more importantly the end of the election, was “fantastic.”

And Perkins said the firefighters would consider Sanders’ proposal to set up a pension plan for future firefighters that is vastly different from the one current employees enjoy. The plan would still guarantee a minimal pension but much less than the current setup. Sanders would then push for a more expansive savings and investment plan for employees.

“The question is what does it mean and how does it affect current and future firefighters,” Perkins said. “We need to look at the numbers and have an honest discussion about the city’s finances. That’s something that hasn’t happened before.”

There were mixed opinions Wednesday about whether Sanders could make good on his promises to clean up the city’s financial problems without proceeding into bankruptcy or raising taxes.

Italiano, from the employees union, said it would be impossible to squeeze enough savings from workers to salvage city finances.

“Even if city employees were willing to give up more, he couldn’t get enough out of their paychecks to make this city financially sound,” Italiano said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Republican Pat Shea, who opposed Sanders in the primary and went on to advise the former police chief’s opponent in the runoff election.

Shea said Sanders’ solutions focus on fixing the city’s administrative problems.

“The city’s administration is a problem but not the main problem. The main problem is a financial one that will require either a dramatic adjustment downward of the city’s debt or a substantial increase in revenue,” Shea said.

“Great administrative talent is not going to solve a financial problem,” he said.

But Mike Conger, a local lawyer who has built a practice investigating pension systems, said Sanders has an “extremely good” chance of succeeding.

“A new guy in office with a fresh face will not have any compunction about blaming people who were around in 2002. That will help because the group in there now will never blame themselves and, therefore, will never allow for reform,” Conger said.

Sanders said he’ll make it happen.

“I am here to tell the people of San Diego you can demand and get accountable government. That is something you should expect from your mayor,” Sanders said.

Steve Erie, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, said that many problems like the potential conflict with the city’s largest employee union may come up.

“This could be the shortest honeymoon ever,” Erie said.

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