Friday, Oct. 13, 2006 | Flashing reds and blues, burning buildings, and the wail of a siren are coming to a television near you, and opponents of Proposition C are hoping San Diego voters rubberneck long enough to figure out it’s a message against outsourcing city work and not an episode of “Law and Order.”

In a commercial that City Firefighters Local 145 unveiled Thursday, a gray-mustachioed firefighter advises the audience to vote against Mayor Jerry Sanders’ ballot measure. Viewers are treated to intermittent images of blazing infernos, cops with flashlights and firefighters running in slow motion.

The commercial’s message is clear: Voting for Proposition C is like “playing with fire.”

The prospect of allowing a private business to take over the city’s police or firefighting functions has sparked the makings of a competitive election in a campaign that up until two weeks ago didn’t have a formal opponent. Union officials unveiled the ad Thursday, marking the first major salvo in a battle that could reshape the city’s labor force.

Sanders and other Proposition C backers say the claim is bogus and have tried to extinguish the issue by making constant promises that the city will never outsource public safety jobs, and that doing so is prohibited. If the measure passes Nov. 7, Sanders has pledged that the legislation that enacts Proposition C will include language that bars public safety from being contacted out. Further, he wants voters to return to the polls and solidify that ban in 2008.

“This is a total red herring designed to frighten and mislead voters,” Sanders said.

The issue has already made it to court. Opponents of the measure claimed in their ballot arguments that the initiative, which would open up city services to competition from the private sector, would leave public safety vulnerable. Proposition C backers sued to prevent the other side from making that argument, but were unsuccessful, opening the door for the campaign’s first contentious moments.

The opponents want voters to picture what a for-profit police force or fire department would look like, implying that the very potential of allowing the lowest bidder patrol the city’s neighborhoods or respond to 9-1-1 calls could be “bad for your safety.”

What Sanders calls “scare tactics,” his opponents call an opportunity to scrutinize a proposal that they say is short on details and legal assurances, despite the mayor’s best intentions.

“This is not about what Jerry Sanders wants or doesn’t want. This is about laws that we’re going to be operating under for a long time,” said Donald Cohen, an organizer for the anti-Proposition C effort and executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a liberal think tank. “We want to know what else is wrong with this thing.”

A Superior Court judge’s decision to allow that argument caused Sanders and City Attorney Mike Aguirre to both deflect the blame for not including the exemption, which was included in earlier versions of the proposition but eventually taken out. Sanders said he relied on the advice of the City Attorney’s Office, but said he would take responsibility for the blunder, which has ignited the new controversy.

Aguirre vehemently denied giving such advice, and issued a statement to that effect Tuesday evening.

Sanders and Aguirre, the two most prominent endorsers of initiative, have tried to downplay their disagreement over the gaffe. But the incident has allowed a potentially damaging set of talking points slip into the debate over a proposal that Sanders claims is crucial to reforming City Hall.

The public safety issue could prove unsettling for the mayor, who has had to endure backlash from the San Diego Police Officers Association earlier this year. The cops’ union blamed Sanders, a former police chief, for the dwindling number of rank-and-file officers on the force, saying they were leaving because the mayor would not allow salary raises for the officers, who are already among the lowest paid cops in the region.

That controversy, like this issue, pitted a mayor who is trying to rein in escalating payroll costs as the city owes $1.4 billion to cover both its pension and retiree health care expenses, against the clout that firefighters and police officers carry with voters.

Sanders alleges that the other employee unions, which represent clerical workers, trash collectors and librarians, are using the fire and police unions as a “smoke screen.” Representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 127 and the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, the blue- and white-collar unions, respectively, were on-hand at press events for the propositions Thursday.

Cohen said he plans to start up a second campaign committee against the initiative that will play up the concerns over public safety. He is already the contact listed for the Citizens Against Corruption committee, which stresses its concern that Proposition C doesn’t guard against the city’s awarding of contracts to businesses that are political allies to the Mayor’s Office.

The measure’s backers say safeguards, such as an independent panel that would choose the winner of any competition and regular audits on those contracts, are built into the initiative. Cohen’s group has argued that details of the arrangement should be finalized before voters head to the polls Nov. 7.

Cohen said he thinks the mayor’s error in not including the public safety exemption could tip off voters that other details of the ballot measure are unclear.

“It’s getting people to look at the rest of it,” Cohen said. “We don’t want another parade where they didn’t check the details.”

Cohen and union officials are also trying to draw a distinction over what qualifies as a public safety employee. The current definition does not include forensic specialists, 9-1-1 operators or police car mechanics. The city’s paramedic service is performed by a mix of public and private employees already – an arrangement that the unions and Sanders agree on.

In addition, one law-enforcement duty – writing red-light tickets – has been partially taken care of by cameras.

“A red-light camera is not a police officer,” firefighters union president Ron Saathoff said. “The problem is we don’t have good definitions about this yet.”

Proposition C backers point to the involvement of Saathoff in the campaign as an example of why the proposition needs to be passed. Saathoff has been charged by the district attorney and U.S. attorney for his role in approving a pension funding deal that allegedly provided him with a special retirement benefit.

They likened the public safety argument to the Saathoff pension deal, saying they were both misleading.

“The union leaders don’t really care about voters,” Sanders said.

Unions and city administrators have been negotiating since the summer over the legislation that would enact the changes to the City Charter that Proposition C prescribes. The negotiations are not expected to conclude until after the November election.

Similar talks are also ongoing over Proposition B, which would require voters to approve new pension enhancements for city employees, although no formal opposition exists against the measure.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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