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Thursday, February 09, 2006 | Several City Council members greeted with skepticism Wednesday the two proposed ballot initiatives that comprise Mayor Jerry Sanders’ early reform efforts.
A council panel raised several questions surrounding the mayor’s proposals but ultimately unanimously voted to forward the mayor’s proposals to the full City Council, where council members will be asked to place the workforce-reform initiatives on the ballot for voter approval in the Nov. 7 election.
The Rules Committee’s five members said the proposals, which Sanders introduced while on the campaign trail, needed to be studied further after draft versions of the initiatives were delivered during their morning meeting Wednesday.
“I just want to make sure that whatever we do is not a quick rush to judgment because it’s the resolution d’jour,” Councilman Jim Madaffer said.
The full council will determine at its Feb. 27 meeting whether to place the measures before voters.
The first measure would require voter approval of all future pension benefit increases granted to employees, while the other would open up certain city services to competition from the private sector.
Several council members said they were skeptical about the reforms, although Sanders said he will gather the signatures needed to put them on the ballot if the council refuses to do so. Sanders will either have to win the council’s approval or garner the required signatures by August to have the measures put before voters in November.
As part of the campaign platform he ran on during last fall’s mayoral election, Sanders said he could improve City Hall’s now-slippery financial footing if by allowing voters a say before pension enhancements are granted to workers and by permitting private companies to compete with municipal employees to determine who could perform the certain city services more cheaply.
The mayor touts the changes as ways to rein in payroll costs at a time the city faces hefty pension and health care costs that have strained the city’s day-to-day service budget. But the initiatives have drawn resistance from the city’s employee unions who see themselves as wrongly blamed for the city’s problems. The ballots are one of the early issues that have forced an early schism between the mayor and employee unions.
Council President Scott Peters said he was “afraid of a ballot campaign that would be another war against the employees.”
Sanders and several supporters of the mayor’s reforms said that competition was necessary to guarantee the city’s taxpayers that they were getting a good deal from the municipal government, but that public employees often win the majority of the competitions with the private sector.
The mayor acknowledged that the reforms would be painful, but that the council should allow the voters to decide how their government is run, regardless of individual officials’ personal opinions.
“If we’re going to achieve meaningful change, meaningful reform, here at City Hall, we’re going to have to shake things up, deliberately and thoughtfully,” Sanders said. “If there’s a chance for government to do it better, then that’s what I want to happen.”
Union leaders, some council members and several others hinted that Sanders’ proposals were political products and not great policies.
“I’m not going to support it at this time,” Councilman Tony Young said. “It can be a discussion, but I don’t look forward to changing my position on this.”
Robert Kronk, a library staffer, read to the council a letter the Municipal Employees Association’s president wrote to Sanders claiming that the mayor had not been straightforward with the city’s workers about his plans.
“During your campaign I asked – and you promised – that you would not pull any surprises regarding labor issues without letting me know first. To date, that has not been how things have gone,” MEA President Judie Italiano wrote to Sanders last week.
Sanders said that nobody should have been surprised by his much-publicized campaign pledge to bring these questions to the voters.
Peters also expressed frustration that the council was being urged to OK the measures when the language had not been finalized yet.
“You don’t know what you’re testifying on because [the initiatives are] being put in front of me as you speak,” he said.
He urged the Mayor’s Office to have updated ballot language several days before the Feb. 27 meeting so that the independent budget analyst could review the impacts.
Although the initiatives are still in draft form, the measures’ general concepts were presented at the start of the two-hour discussion.
Under the competitive bidding initiative, the mayor would appoint a “managed competition independent review board” consisting of at least five members who are experts in finance, law and the service areas. Members of the board would be subject to the City Council’s confirmation and may not be affiliated with or hired afterward by contending companies. Any contact between a competing firm and a member on the independent review board outside of an official presentation would disqualify the board member from serving.
The process would begin with a city service being opened to competitive bidding, whereby the affected municipal unions and independent contractors would have a 90-day window to submit a proposal that would be mulled over by the independent review board.
After the board submits its recommendation, the mayor and City Council would each have to accept the suggestion in its entirety. The Mayor’s Office would then be responsible for overseeing the service and reporting back to the council regularly. The auditor would also be charged with investigating if services are being performed and if cost targets are being met.
Speakers on both sides of the debate focused on how the public-private competition worked in other municipalities, such as the county of San Diego, and within the existing city of San Diego programs.
The pension proposal would mandate that voters be presented a snapshot of the fund’s health and a forecast of what benefit boosts would do to the pension fund when being asked to approve a pension benefit increase. City officials would continue to negotiate the benefits in labor talks, but voters own the final say over whether contracts are approved. Cost-of-living adjustments to retirement pay would not go to the polling booth, however.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre said San Francisco citizens vote on public employees’ pension increases in San Francisco, which has a fully funded retirement system. The city of San Diego currently has a pension debt of almost $2 billion, and has about $2 for every $3 it owes.
Peters said he was aware the public was demanding that the city’s fiscal health be improved, but cautioned that Sanders’ proposals needed to be further vetted.
“A lot of people have hope in Mayor Sanders,” he said. “We’re going to have to come up with something that is fair.”
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