Michael Zucchet, head of the San Diego’s white-collar union, faced a simple question afterCity Council passed a 2011 budget early this afternoon.

Were city employees laid off today?

“I have no earthly idea,” Zucchet said.

About 200 filled city positions were eliminated in Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget plan overwhelmingly approved by council. The decision, made 70 days after Sanders first revealed the more than $179 million budget deficit, closes that gap.

Haste, Sanders emphasized, was essential. If cuts were made by January, the city saved $24 million by allowing the city to take money off the books sooner.

Yet little accomplished in Wednesday’s four-hour council meeting could be considered decisive. City Council and others filled the day with all sorts of caveats.

The problem with all this is labor law. The law requires the city to meet with affected labor organizations like Zucchet’s Municipal Employees Association to discuss the effects of certain decisions before implementing them.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told the council to tailor its budget motion to emphasize that the actions subject to labor negotiations didn’t take effect until the talks are complete.

In Councilman Tony Young’s motion to pass the mayor’s proposal, he made explicit that the decision would be subject to labor laws. Councilwoman Donna Frye reiterated it.

Sanders’ press release announcing the council’s decision included this line: “The approval of the budget will not constitute a final decision or become effective until the city has complied with its legal obligations under the California’s Meyers-Milias-Brown Act and any procedural requirements set forth in City Council Policy 300-06, which governs labor relations.”

Young’s motion also included a request that the Mayor’s Office provide more information on fire crew shutdowns and lifeguard cuts before they became final. Later Frye said that she wanted more details on the plan to layoff the majority of civilian police department employees before that went into effect.

Essentially, that means the most controversial parts of the mayor’s proposal are not final.

I asked Frye what the council had decided on Wednesday.

“We passed a budget,” Frye said, and added that no one had been laid off.

I asked city Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone the same question.

The council, Goldstone said, has given “tentative approval or conditional approval” to the mayor’s proposed reductions, pending the outcome of labor negotiations. Labor could agree with the mayor’s positions during the talks, the mayor’s proposals could change or both sides could return to council deadlocked, he said.

But how everything went down Wednesday, Zucchet said, wasn’t a good faith effort to be fair to city workers. Wednesday’s actions sure sounded decisive to him.

“Apparently they’re going to put the cart before the horse and I don’t know frankly what that means,” he said. “I’m not sure they do either. With respect, I don’t mean to cast aspersions about their genuine approach or whatever, but it appears to me almost as if it’s made up as they go along.”


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