Friday, January 13, 2006 | Members of the city’s largest labor union mobilized against Mayor Jerry Sanders on Thursday in a way that was previously reserved only for fiery City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
The mayor’s decision to endorse Aguirre’s long-standing effort to become the legal advisor to the workers’ embattled pension fund infuriated the largest union of city employees, as the city attorney has led the push to void nearly a decades’ worth of pension benefit increases. Sanders announced the move in his State of the City address Thursday.
Led by Municipal Employees Association President Judie Italiano, about 50 city employees took part in a candlelight vigil “mourning” the end of the employees’ relationship with the mayor. Italiano arrived with more than 1,700 signed declarations from city employees stating that Aguirre is not their lawyer.
“Mr. Aguirre has declared war on every employee in this city and it is intolerable for him to speak out for us or to seek to represent our pension interests in light of what he has done,” Italiano said.
Aguirre has advocated for a year that the City Attorney’s Office oversee the legal affairs to the pension system – as was the case before former City Attorney Casey Gwinn abdicated the role in 1998. MEA has backed a lawsuit against the effort. Aguirre filed a lawsuit of his own. The legal fight was to be settled – at least for now – Friday, but Aguirre secured a postponement Thursday of the expected decision from Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton.
The indictment Jan. 6 of the pension system’s legal advisor, Lori Chapin, on federal corruption charges had thrust the issue back into the spotlight.
MEA, which represents 6,000 city workers, loudly proclaimed its dissidence toward Aguirre’s desires, in and outside of Golden Hall, where Sanders delivered his speech.
The animosity might hamper Sanders’ attempts to compel MEA negotiators back to the bargaining table. Sanders has said repeatedly that the union must renegotiate its contract and agree to, among other things, forego salary increases.
But MEA is in the first year of a three-year contract that includes a salary increase in the third year.
Potential roadblocks in future negations did not stop the union members from loudly proclaiming their anger toward the Aguirre-Sanders duo.
The candlelight vigil – an event typically categorized as a somber moment to reflect on a social or human injustice – turned out to be more of a protest.
Among the chants from the union members were: “Hands off our pension. No Aguirre;” “Shame, shame, shame, shame on you;” “Hey, hey, hey. Ho, ho, ho. Mike Aguirre’s got to go;” and, “Thank you (Councilman Scott) Peters.”
Brandon Burns, a parking enforcement officer, expressed his discontent toward Aguirre and a loss of faith in Sanders as he held a fake tombstone, with the acronym R.I.P. printed across the front.
“I believe that move is so Aguirre can move in and become legal counsel to the pension system,” Burns said. “This is a conflict of interest because this is the same attorney that has sued that system and now he wants to be a legal advisor to that plan.”
Burns’ suspicion was affirmed inside Golden Hall, where Sanders made his desires for Aguirre to retain legal power over the board explicitly clear. On Wednesday, Sanders also requested that the council-appointed pension trustees step down, an action that made Aguirre’s move to the pension system easier.
When Sanders told the audience during his speech that he supported Aguirre’s move on the retirement system, he was met with a mixture of boos and applause.
Despite MEA’s assertion that its relationship with Sanders is finished, the mayor offered conciliatory remarks to all city employees during his speech.
“One of the most unfortunate aspects of the crisis that surrounds us is the false perception that you are somehow to blame for our city’s problems,” he said. “The system failed you – not the other way around.”
MEA protestors, however, didn’t appear warm to any of the changes to the city’s pension system.
“It’s like Don Quixote,” said Metropolitan Wastewater Department employee John Quigley. “Mike Aguirre has this idea that he’s some kind of great crusader and that he’s going to ride in and slay some dragon, which he thinks is the pension board.”
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