Monday, March 27, 2006 | Mike McGhee knows the feel of all the seats at the city of San Diego’s negotiating table. He began his career as executive assistant to the president of the firefighters union. Then he moved over to the police officers union, then on to former Mayor Susan Golding’s office.
After that, McGhee headed to the city’s labor relations office for seven years, where he negotiated the often contentious salary and benefit packages on behalf of the city.
Now, after leaving his position as labor relations manager last month, he is back at the negotiating table. Except this time he is bargaining on behalf of the firefighters union, not against them.
In San Diego’s small world of government and politics, McGhee’s workplace transitions aren’t all that uncommon. But his latest switch has focused attention on a little-known clause in the city’s ethics and lobbying ordinances that exempts those involved in labor negotiations from rules that otherwise forbid former city workers from “switching sides” and conducting business with the city on behalf of another organization within one year of leaving City Hall.
Usually, an ex-city worker wouldn’t be allowed to conduct business with the city so quickly, but the exemption means McGhee’s on the other side of the negotiating table almost immediately after leaving the city.
“It’s strange to have someone with that inside information negotiating against you. I’m not comfortable with it,” said Council President Scott Peters, typically one of the more union-friendly council members.
The concern comes at a time when the city’s negotiations with its labor unions are the focus of intense scrutiny. Union and city officials are currently at the table discussing a long list of issues integral to the financial reform package Mayor Jerry Sanders is employing in hopes of solving the city’s fiscal crisis.
The issue has drawn attention to an exemption that is common across the state, but that is, along with a number of other regulations, currently being reviewed by the Ethics Committee.
An opinion from the Ethics Commission issued March 16 blesses McGhee’s involvement at the negotiating table. McGhee said he also sought and received the approval of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has brought charges against five officials in relation to a special benefit given to the firefighters union president during 2002 labor talks. Its investigation into City Hall is ongoing.
McGhee said he will understand where the city comes down on issues in negotiations, but he never had discussions with new officials in the Mayor’s Office about the upcoming negotiations.
“I try and do this job fair from both sides,” McGhee said. “This is what I do for a living.”
Other officials have come over to the city from the labor unions. Upon taking office, Sanders originally sought Johnny Perkins, then a firefighters union negotiator, to be his chief labor negotiator.
City Councilwoman Donna Frye said she’s worried that McGhee’s involvement in negotiations creates an unfair playing field for his new employer, as he could have inside knowledge on what the city’s actual bottom line is on specific issues. The exemption needs to be removed in order to be fair to both the city and the unions in the future, she said.
“The bottom line is it is bad, bad form and I don’t think it instills confidence in the process,” Frye said.
This week, she authored a memo to Peters asking that he take up the issue at the council’s Rules Committee. He said he has referred the issue to the Ethics Commission, which is already in the middle of a planned reevaluation of the city’s lobbying ordinance.
There are two prongs to the provision that makes former workers wait one year before working opposite the city on an issue. The ordinance is supposed to forbid employees from working on a project for the city and then switching over to the other side in the middle of the same project.
The second and broader provision is known as the “revolving door” provision or the “cooling off period.” The provision is intended to prevent, for one year, former city workers from lobbying – which is defined as attempting to influence a municipal decision.
Under the ordinance, someone with involvement in collective bargaining agreements isn’t considered to be influencing a municipal decision. Therefore, Cristie McGuire, Ethics Commission general counsel, opined that McGhee can lawfully undertake his job as labor relations director for the firefighters. The job includes representing the labor union on issues related to wages and working conditions and bargaining updated labor contracts. It also includes interpreting the union’s current labor contract – one that he negotiated on behalf of the city last year in the meet-and-confer process.
Stacy Fulhorst, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said a similar exemption exists in jurisdictions around the state such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.
“Meet and confer is unusual because it’s not about someone using their influence, but their expertise,” Fulhorst said.
For that reason, union officials aren’t forced to register as lobbyists if they are only working on negotiation issues. However, Fulhorst said if labor officials lobby on other issues such as an increase to the hotel-room tax or the living-wage ordinance, they must register officially as lobbyists.
The commission began reviewing the exemptions to the city’s lobbying ordinance in March and will continue to do so at its April 13 meeting.
– Staff writer Evan McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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