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Tuesday, April 17, 2007 | Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council were unable to break a stalemate over pay for firefighters Monday after a six-hour hearing transformed into a procedural fight over how to resolve an in-house tussle. Talks are slated to resume Tuesday.

After several months of negotiations with the firefighters union led to an impasse, Sanders recommended imposing a one-year contract that would freeze firefighters’ salaries for a third consecutive year.

Labor Pains

  • The Issue: Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council are locked in an internal dispute over firefighter pay.
  • What It Means: After negotiating for months, Sanders could see his recommendation to hold the line on firefighters’ salaries reversed by a council majority that is sympathetic to sacrifices the group has made in recent years.
  • The Bigger Picture: Much like the recent fight over budget authority, the mayor and council are trying to stake out their roles in labor negotiations, which remained unresolved when the hearing ended Monday.

But several council members said they wanted to grant a raise, and the question of how to reconcile the two positions within the city’s camp kicked off the latest in a series of heated debates over authority involving some of City Hall’s cooler customers.

Monday’s hearing was scheduled to bring to a close labor negotiations that have been held between the city and three of its unions since New Years. The council voted to sign off on a 9 percent pay increase for police officers, but the meeting broke before a final decision was made about contracts for both the firefighters and deputy city attorneys.

Besides disagreeing on the pay levels for firefighters, the mayor and council are also at odds over the process set out for labor negotiations under the year-old strong-mayor form of government. Under the structure, Sanders’ aides meet face-to-face at the bargaining table with employee groups. Only the City Council, however, has the authority to finalize an agreement with the union.

The council appeared ready to reject the mayor’s recommendation to declare an impasse with the union, City Firefighters Local 145, at the meeting. But it is unclear Sanders will — or has to — carry out any instructions the council gives him should a five-member majority tell the mayor they want to offer firefighters a raise.

The meeting began to unravel in the late hours after Councilwoman Toni Atkins said she wanted to reject the portion of the mayor’s offer that dealt with salary. When Atkins asked Assistant City Attorney Karen Heumann for advice for how to proceed, Council President Scott Peters became agitated at Heumann’s advice: that the council couldn’t change the mayor’s recommendation at the same meeting. Peters is regularly critical of City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s office, particularly with respect to labor issues such as Aguirre’s legal crusade against past pension deals.

“Someone said we twisted labor law in this city: I think we’re Chubby Checker,” Peters said, referring to the performer of “The Twist,” a chart-topping rock ‘n’ roll song in 1960.

Following the remark, Peters railed against Rod Betts, an outside labor attorney the city hired to assist in the negotiations, for initially refusing to provide a second opinion about Heumann’s advice. Betts said answering the questions would be “outside the scope of his engagement.”

“I’m surprised that you’d give an answer like that. It’s pathetic,” said Peters, usually one of the more measured voices in the city government. He continued: “He’s (Betts) got the muzzle on him, and I believe he knows the answer we’re getting is wrong.”

The council president then blasted Sanders for not taking a more active role in forcing Betts to provide legal advice, causing the avuncular mayor to shoot back.

“Mr. Peters, you’re the one running the meeting. You get active if you want to be more active,” Sanders said.

Betts eventually answered after asking Sanders’ permission, saying the council could approve or reject Sanders’ recommendation, and that by rejecting it, the body would probably have to confer in a confidential setting to see if council members could reconcile their differences.

Aguirre appeared minutes later and chided Peters for “berating” Betts. He said Betts’ opinion was void, claiming only the City Attorney’s Office is authorized to provide legal advice. Aguirre then accused Peters of orchestrating negotiations with the firefighters directly, which the council president flatly denied.

“That’s not true,” Peters said. “You’re making that stuff up.”

Aguirre said he would investigate, a threat he has directed several times toward Peters since taking office two years ago. “I do not believe what you have said today has been forthright,” Aguirre said.

The issue was postponed until Tuesday, when the council and Sanders will meet in closed session for the third time this week to discuss the labor talks, which have become a sticky issue for the city in recent years.

Past dealings over employees’ retirement benefits have generated a $1 billion deficit in the city’s pension fund. The deals, which enhanced pension benefits while letting the city off the hook for its annual bill in 1996 and 2002, drew investigations into City Hall that eventually led to state and federal criminal charges.

Additionally, Aguirre filed a lawsuit that seeks to roll back the estimated $900 million worth of benefits he said were created under the deals, but the stakes of that challenge have been substantially trimmed by the courts.

Sanders rode into office aboard the public’s resentment toward the pension deals, vowing to reform the city’s workforce to tighten the payroll costs that ballooned over the past few years. He offered the Police Officers Association a raise this year because of the rapid departure of cops from the San Diego Police Department. He argues that there is a shrinking number of qualified applicants for police jobs, and that the pay the city offered cops lagged compared to most other departments that were competing for the same shrinking number of officers. The raise was “market-driven,” he said.

The mayor used that rationale when declining a raise for firefighters, pointing to the lower attrition rates in the Fire Department when compared to police. In 2006 and 2007, only three firefighters left San Diego for another agency whereas 125 police officers split to join another department elsewhere, according to city figures.

Council members, however, said the firefighters have sacrificed for the good of the city in the last two years by contributing more of their own money to pay for their retirement benefits while sustaining consecutive pay freezes.

“A lot of us think another year of zero is insulting,” Peters said.

More than 150 off-duty firefighters and their supporters rallied in the plaza outside City Hall before the meeting, with many of them enduring the council meeting until it was adjourned after 8 p.m.

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

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