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Wednesday, May 14, 2008 | As the dust settled after Monday’s lengthy labor battle at City Council, the future of three City Hall unions’ labor contracts remained unclear.

In fact, some involved aren’t even sure what to make of Monday’s marathon council hearing over the stalemate between the unions and the Mayor’s Office, which included a last-minute mayoral concession that some found surprising, as well as unlawful.

The Monday meeting ended with no resolution, as the City Council failed to approve the contracts the mayor wanted to impose on the three labor groups. Mayor Jerry Sanders then said he would take his plan to revamp the city’s pension system straight to the voters in the form of a November ballot initiative.

For his part, Sanders on Tuesday offered little clarity. He said he wasn’t sure what the November ballot measure would look like, and said he’d be willing to return to negotiations with the unions, despite saying talks were over Monday night.

“We’re always willing to talk,” Sanders said, attributing the switch in tone to the late night hearings. “I am never willing to shut a door unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

The battle is significant as the mayor proposes to create a new pension system for new city workers, save for police and firefighters. The old system has been at the heart of the city’s financial and political struggles in recent years and is still at the forefront as voters return to the polls in this coming election.

Sanders has proposed creating a hybrid system that would combine elements of a 401(k) plan with the traditional foundation of a government pension plan. Doing so, he says, will shift a share of the financial burden off of the city’s shoulders. He estimates that if the city currently had the plan in place for all workers, it would save $25 million a year.

The police and fire unions already agreed to labor contracts earlier this year that included salary increases. After coming to stalemates with the three remaining City Hall labor unions — those for blue-collar and white-collar workers, as well as deputy city attorneys — the mayor on Monday asked the City Council to impose contracts on the three unions, which included no salary increases, a revamped health care system and the new hybrid pension system.

The City Council failed to approve the mayor’s request, deadlocking at a 4-4 vote.

For now, it seems that the wage and healthcare components of the mayor’s proposal will not appear on the November ballot, but some sort of a pension proposal likely will. Mayoral spokesman Fred Sainz said that because healthcare and wages are negotiated from year to year, it would not be appropriate for voters to permanently ratify those proposals into law.

“There’s a difference between benefits of employment versus pension benefits,” he said. “One is completely negotiable as an employment right and that’s what pay and healthcare typically is whereas pension benefits are typically vested. When you go to the ballot … it has to be something forever.”

Just whose pension proposal ends up on the ballot hasn’t been decided. The mayor declined to state whether the November ballot initiative would be his original proposal, the Municipal Employees Association alternative he suddenly supported Monday night, or something different from both.

After almost seven hours of City Council impasse hearings Monday, Sanders announced that he would adopt the MEA pension proposal into his final contract proposal — known as a “last, best and final offer” — after rejecting it for five months on the premise that his package was non-negotiable. While City Attorney Mike Aguirre ruled that the mayor could legitimately alter the proposal, others such as Deputy City Attorneys Association legal counsel Shirley Lee balked, saying the mayor’s revision was unlawful and went against City Council policy.

“The mayor has unilaterally decided ‘I’m going to make another last, best and final offer and shove it down your throats,’” Lee said Monday at the hearing. “So this council has an obligation to follow its own policies, its own rules.”

A 1984 ruling by the Public Employees Relations Board states that “last, best and final offers” cannot be unilaterally imposed upon employees if they are altered after an “impasse” has been declared. By definition, an impasse hearing signifies that both parties are unwilling to engage in further negotiations.

Aguirre said the case does not apply to San Diego because yesterday’s mayoral revision represented an act of negotiation and did not parallel the halted negotiations in the PERB case.

“The city actually made a major concession adjusting, after listening to the other side, and then went back to the bargaining table and presented a new [offer] and the unions rejected that proposal,” Aguirre said.

The mayor’s 11th-hour revision startled a few council members and unions, who hadn’t received notice of a possible change in the proposal.

“I’m not comfortable procedurally,” Council President Scott Peters said Monday. “I just think we’ve changed the rules right at the last minute. I heard it right in the middle of the hearing, we had talked out all these rules and I don’t believe this would be an effective vote, legally.”

DCAA President Andrew Jones said he found the mayor’s power to amend the proposal unfair, in light of the fact that Aguirre opined that the City Council can’t alter the details of the labor proposal. Aguirre said it can only vote to support or oppose the mayor’s entire proposal.

“We were saying all along that we thought the City Council could make changes to either contracts. The City Council could accept what it thought was good about our contract, it could accept what it thought was good about the mayor’s contract and try to find ways to negotiate with the parties to come to agreements,” he said. “I think it’s ironic that the city attorney is saying that the council can’t do that, but says the mayor can do it.”

But he wasn’t the only person at the hearing who found some irony in the situation.

“What’s ironic is that the parties, instead of trying to reach out to the mayor after the mayor made a major concession, backed away from their own offer — at least the MEA did. And that’s unfortunate,” Aguirre said.

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