Giving council members the ability to propose changes when city unions reach an impasse with the mayor may not be an ideal process, but city officials have to follow it anyway, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told reporters today.

Goldsmith talked about this Jan. 26 memo, which I detailed recently, and which spelled out a process for impasse proceedings that will diminish the mayor’s power at the bargaining table.

The city attorney said the impasse proceedings are outlined in a council policy that was not changed when the city transitioned to a strong mayor form of government in 2006.

“Whether we like the process or not,” Goldsmith said, “we do need to follow what the law says and not what we want it to say.”

In fact, Goldsmith said he thought it would be wise to alter the procedure, either through a vote of the electorate to change the charter or a decision by the council to revise the policy.

“I think if you want to have a strong mayor, you have a strong mayor who has the ability to have a last, best and final offer,” Goldsmith said. “I think that would be an appropriate thing to do from the standpoint of having an executive with some ability to do that, but again that’s a decision for the community.”

To change the process, the city would have to discuss the issue with the unions beforehand in the so-called meet-and-confer process. The procedure could not be changed for the current negotiations, which take place as the city is facing an estimated $42 million to $54 million budget gap and is bargaining with all five city unions.

In his initial bargaining proposal, Sanders proposed closing the gap through an estimated $54 million in worker concessions, including instituting furloughs and eliminating the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP.

Goldsmith’s memo overturns a 2008 opinion of former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who said the council could only vote to approve or reject the mayor’s entire proposal. To allow the council to alter the mayor’s final offer, Aguirre wrote, would “usurp the Charter provision for Strong Mayor passed by the citizens of the City.”

Goldsmith said last year’s ruling of the Public Employment Relations Board makes clear that the city has to follow the council policy, which he said clearly states that the City Council can “resolve” the dispute. This includes the option to vote to send the mayor and union negotiators back to the bargaining table to consider an alternative proposal of the council’s choosing.

Deputy City Attorney Joan Dawson, who drafted the opinion, said there had been several inquiries about the proper bargaining process, mostly from the city’s labor relations staff. She was uncertain if a council member had also requested an opinion.

The impasse proceedings as outlined in the memo could get complicated. For example, if the two sides reached an impasse because the mayor wanted to hold salaries flat and a union wanted a 2 percent increase, the council could vote to send the two sides back to the bargaining table to consider a 1 percent increase.

The mayor could veto that move, but the council could override the veto, putting the mayor in the situation of negotiating a possible solution he objected to. Dawson noted that state law requires both sides to bargain in “good faith.”

If the unions agreed to a 1 percent increase under that hypothetical, it would become a tentative agreement that would go to the council for approval. The mayor could veto the agreement, but again, the council could override the veto.

Of course, that’s only one possible scenario under this procedure. Alternatively, if the union doesn’t like the council’s proposal, the council can vote to impose it, as long as it’s been discussed at the bargaining table. The process applies to benefits as well as salaries.

I’ll probably post more on this topic. In the meantime, read my initial story and send your questions and comments to rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org.

RANI GUPTA

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