Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006 | With less than two months to go before the November election, the campaign backing Mayor Jerry Sanders’ ballot initiatives enjoys a sizable head start in fundraising and campaign organization over opponents, who have yet to form a campaign committee or hold public fundraisers.

Supporters of Propositions B and C have been raising money since March, aggressively polling and calling in favors from nationally known champions of the government privatization in advance of the Nov. 7 election. As of June 30, the “Yes on B and C” campaign committee – run by Sanders’ political consultants – has raised $200,650, and one organizer said the campaign’s goal is to raise enough money to produce television, radio and direct-mail advertisements.

The opponents, however, lack an official campaign committee and had not filed any financial disclosures with the city clerk as of June 30. Officials from the city’s unions have hinted that they will eventually begin campaigning, but that they have not yet done so.

“We haven’t gotten our campaign together yet, it’s too early,” said Joan Raymond, president of the blue-collar American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 127. “But we better soon.”

Political campaigns typically ramp up quickly following Labor Day and the unions are likely to face a formidable battle come Election Day with the backlash from the city’s pension woes, a well-financed opponent and a mayor with soaring approval numbers.

If approved, Propositions B and C would require a public vote before city workers’ pension benefits are increased and would allow private businesses to compete with public employees to perform city services, respectively. In addition to retooling the way the city manages its workforce, the propositions will also test Sanders’ popularity after enjoying high favorability ratings during his first year in office.

Sanders, who played up his former role as San Diego’s police chief when he campaigned for mayor last fall, will now have to square off against former cop colleagues. Police officers and firefighters will likely be leading the efforts to derail two ballot measures that Sanders said he needs passed in order to reform City Hall.

Despite the marked organization disadvantage, opponents of Proposition C received a major boost from the Superior Court on Tuesday when a judge denied a legal challenge from the proposition’s supporters, who disputed claims in ballot arguments that the measure could potentially lead to the outsourcing of the city’s police and firefighting services.

Judge Ronald Prager’s decision thrust police and fire squarely into the middle of the debate. Proposition C supporters have claimed that the measure exempted public safety, hoping to render moot any claims that the measures would harm police officers and firefighters.

Carl DeMaio, a proposition supporter and operator of local think tank that advocates for efficient government, said the ruling contradicts the proposition’s goal. He said savings to be realized in other city services through managed competition – the buzzword description for Proposition C – is supposed to generate more money for services that citizens want.

“For every dollar we save, for every ounce of fat we cut out of the city government, that is another dollar we can spend on public safety,” he said.

Proposition C critic Norma Damashek of the League of Women Voters said that, while outsourcing calls for burglaries and fires may be a stretch, she is concerned that she doesn’t know how far-reaching Proposition C could go.

“The judge’s ruling was important because it indicated that there’s a lot more to this than the public knows,” she said.

Sanders has touted the measures as necessary vehicles that will allow him to salvage the fiscal health of a city government that faces billion-dollar pension and retiree healthcare deficits and is currently under investigation for its past financial dealings.

The propositions are being supported by several business groups, prominent Republicans and City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

Labor leaders say the proposals unnecessarily scapegoat public employees and dampen their say in city government. The public employee unions are apparently standing alone in the fight against Proposition B – the measure requiring a public vote on pensions – with firefighters and police officers taking the lead because of their perceived popularity.

For example, several law enforcement officers from around Southern California showed up to the City Council on Tuesday to deride Sanders’ refusal to give pay increases to officers, saying it drove away more than 60 officers last fiscal year.

“We won’t hesitate to come down here and take every cop,” said John Sittes, president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association. “They’re a marketable product.”

However, well-known activists are taking up the anti-Proposition C efforts alongside the unions.

Damashek and Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a think tank that advocates for the working poor, appear to be the lead strategists for the anti-Proposition C campaign. Both say their organizing efforts are in the early stages in their battle against the managed competition measure.

Supporters, however, have been hard at work. The Yes on B and C committee has set up a website. They paraded former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith around town last week to espouse the virtues of managed competition between the private sector and public employees.

The propositions are being billed as the tools needed to prod the city’s recovery and may serve as a bellwether for other governments whose budgets are strained by payroll costs.

DeMaio claims that requiring a public vote for pension increases is a measure that other cities may adopt to curb pension costs.

DeMaio pointed to the city and county of San Francisco’s pension system as an example of the initiative’s success. Voters are required to approve new benefits there, and the San Francisco pension fund has $1.03 in assets for every dollar that it owes. In San Diego, the retirement fund has 68 cents for every dollar it owes.

“There is $300 billion in public-sector pension underfunding,” he said. “This will allow voters to end the backroom deals on pension benefits.”

DeMaio’s remarks invoke the distrustful tone that supporters are hoping voters share of City Hall. Under Proposition B, it would be the voters who have the final say on raising pension benefits. Under Proposition C, a panel comprised of private citizens and city officials would select the winners of the competitions between public employees and the bidding companies. Audits would be performed to monitor their success.

The distrust of City Hall stems from its past pension dealings. The city of San Diego struck agreements with its pension system and labor unions over the past decade that granted employees new benefits while allowing the city to skip its full pension bills. Currently, the city’s pension deficit is $1.4 billion and the subject of local and federal criminal prosecutions.

Still, some say the prospects of privatization that Proposition C would allow are dubious in light of recent headlines. Damashek and Cohen are stressing how government contracts have resulted in runaway costs at the least and scandal at worst. They point to the price tag of the recent private investigation by Kroll Inc., which cost the city $20 million after it was initially slated to be a $250,000 expense. They hope that the public will look to the Kroll headlines, as well as the scandals surrounding defense contractor Halliburton and disgraced former congressman Duke Cunningham, as examples that government contracts are dangerous.

“Voters have a lot of experience about contracting. It’s not a slam dunk for the mayor,” Cohen said. “We’re going to tell the public the story about what happens when you do government-by-contract.”

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