Tuesday, March 28, 2006 | The San Diego City Council forwarded to the city’s voters both of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ workforce reform initiatives after a lengthy public meeting Monday and regular negotiating sessions over the past several weeks.
The council members allowed the measures to be placed on the Nov. 7 ballot even though many said they disagreed with the proposals. Seven council members voted to place Sanders’ workforce reforms before voters and one voted against the proposal.
The council – with Councilman Ben Hueso dissenting – decided to let Sanders make his case to voters.
“He should be given that opportunity, whether I agree with it or do not agree with it,” Councilwoman Donna Frye said.
The first of Sanders’ initiatives would require voter approval of any increase in employee pension benefits, and the second would open up city services to competition from the private sector. Sanders touted the reforms as a way to trim payroll costs from a thin city budget and to put more scrutiny on the types of labor deals that has led to a pension system that is currently underfunded by $1.39 billion.
The mayor will need a vote of the public to enact his proposals, which are the first of a hodgepodge of actions he put forth on the campaign trail to cure the city’s financial ills. Sanders noted that he wasn’t asking the council to support his proposals, but to give San Diegans a chance to vote on them.
“At the end of the day, the public should get to vote on the two measures, that’s the key issue,” Sanders said. “Let the voters have the ultimate judgment in November.
The council voted 7-to-1 to place the workforce reforms on the ballot after a day full of open- and closed-door meetings that labor law required as part of the “meet-and-confer” negotiating process. Current labor pacts between the city and its unions required the city to meet formally with the labor unions before the council voted to place the initiatives on the ballot.
Monday’s meeting marked one of the first face-offs between the City Council and Sanders, who during his mayoral campaign criticized the council’s past handling of its payroll costs and pension dealings.
The city’s employee unions tugged at the council’s cuffs from the other direction, urging it to turn down or postpone its consideration of the two measures until they were made more favorable to city workers.
The council made several critical remarks of the political pressure they were absorbing from outside groups that rallied around the new mayor, including a band of businessmen who were sponsoring a petition drive to gather the signatures needed to place the reforms on the ballot if the council didn’t.
“I don’t think we should be intimidated by that effort,” said Hueso. “Solidarity is very important – getting behind our mayor [is important] – but personally I want to get behind a very thorough process.”
Like Hueso, the unions argued that the negotiating process and the details of the reforms were not thorough enough. The mayor said he cut off talks because it didn’t seem that either side was going to compromise any further, although labor leaders said there was still time to maneuver.
Labor officials said they first wanted to see implementing ordinances, the official language that accompanies a voter initiative, crafted for the proposals before going forward.
“You need to let the deliberative process take place so that you can negotiate without an artificial deadline that was set for political purposes,” said Douglas Olins, a representative of the Deputy City Attorneys Association. “This is negotiating by fire drill.”
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.
Some union leaders also explained that they wanted a shorter expiration date for the pension-benefit measure than 15 years proposed by the mayor. Others said they preferred one that was tied to the health of the pension fund, which is measured by comparing the plan’s assets to how much it owes. Currently the city’s retirement plan has about $2 for every $3 it owes.
Other concerns included city employees’ ability to incur expenses to put together a plan for competing with business and whether the initiative would expressly state that the independent review board that judges whether city services should be contracted out would comply with the state’s open meeting and public records laws.
Leaders from the police and firefighters union said they wanted clear language in the managed-competition measure that exempted the public safety departments from having to vie for their jobs with other agencies. Mayoral aides said the language already existed in another part of the City Charter.
Sanders said he appreciated critics’ concerns and said that some of the criticisms could be ironed out when the municipal code language was authored and negotiated and that some of them would just water down the reforms.
“There will remain fundamental differences of opinion on some key issues that remain, no matter the time we take,” Sanders said.
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