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Friday, March 24, 2006 | The San Diego City Council will decide Monday whether to place two of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposals for reforming the city workforce on the November ballot, and if labor leaders’ concerns go unresolved, council members may be forced to choose sides between the new mayor and the unions.

The Mayor’s Office and union delegates have been meeting at the bargaining table for more than a month about the ballot initiatives that play a significant role in the new mayor’s campaign promises and the livelihoods of the city’s 11,000 employees.

Sanders hopes the initiatives will keep payroll costs in check, which will in turn have a positive impact on a ballooning $1.39 billion pension deficit and a thin city budget that will likely undergo more cuts this budget season. Union leaders are worried that the proposed changes could financially damage the city’s rank-and-file as well as undermine their own political clout. A number of council members have been critical of the measures since the mayor announced them last month.

“We’re meeting with the city and regrouping to see where we are,” said Mike McGhee, director of labor relations and government affairs for City Firefighters Local 145.

The first of Sanders’ initiatives would require voters to approve any increase in employee pension benefits, and the second would open up city services to competition from the private sector.

After vetting the measures and offering suggestions behind closed doors, several union leaders say they have concerns they want resolved before the council meeting Monday or they’ll urge the council to leave Sanders’ reforms off the ballot this fall.

Council members have throughout the process expressed their concerns and skepticism over the initiatives, and they could hear more criticism for the mayor’s plans at next week’s meeting.

The mayor has already extended the deadline he set for the City Council to approve the measures. If he fails to garner council support Monday, he will be forced to hit the streets seeking 90,000-plus signatures needed to put the initiatives on the November ballot. The deadline was extended, officials said privately, so that the initiatives could be made more attractive to labor-friendly council members.

But according to an e-mail from Ann Smith, the attorney for the white-collar Municipal Employees Association, the union and the city still have differences about the plan. Smith has asked that the pension-benefits initiative expire after eight years. Additionally, she wants a review panel that would be set up under the managed-competition measure to comply with the state’s open meeting and public records law.

Phone calls placed to Smith on Thursday were not returned by press time.

The city, she said in the e-mail, made it’s “last, best and final” offers on the ballot proposals, and that MEA will likely agree to impasse on this issue. Under impasse, the sides fail to agree on a contract and the city may impose the terms of the final offer unilaterally.

The council, however, will have final say if Sanders is to avoid a petition drive.

Pushing from the other side is a band of local businessmen who have already begun gathering signatures to place Sanders’ reforms on the ballot if the council fails to do so. The groups wants the measures to include language that is much stricter than what the unions want and threaten to place their initiative on the ballot if the mayor’s measures approved by the council are “watered down” to suit the unions’ tastes.

“It’s too early to say whether any [changes] would be a poison pill. We really need to see what plays out on Monday,” said Scott Maloni, a spokesman for the signature gathering group who also served as Sanders’ campaign consultant. “Quite frankly, it really will depend on the mayor to tell us if what the council decides provides him with the tools he needs.”

At the urging of Peters, the mayor’s staff decided to use amended language that would allow city workers who lose their jobs in the outsourcing process to interview with the private firm that wins the contract. In addition, union delegates say they want more specifics about how a pension increase would actually go before voters and if the managed competition proposition would allow a union representative to sit on the panel that reviews city contracts for outsourcing.

Proponents of the mayor’s ideas say they don’t mind some changes to Sanders’ initial proposals, but said they will be ready to gather the signatures if they don’t get what they want.

“My concern is that the council will amend to death the managed competition initiative and stack the deck, which will eliminate any fair competition,” said petition sponsor Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a conservative think tank.

The council will consider the initiatives Monday at 2 p.m. at City Hall.

evan.mclaughlin@voiceofsandiego.org

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