Back in 2004, two of the area’s most prominent labor organizations formed an important part of the campaign against the strong mayor form of government. This time, not so much.

The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, an umbrella group of local labor unions, opposed strong mayor when it was on the ballot in 2004. This time it didn’t make an endorsement. Like 2004, the San Diego Police Officers Association, the city’s police union, signed this year’s ballot argument against strong mayor. But the union hasn’t been active in opposition.

Lorena Gonzalez, the labor council’s leader, said the majority of the council’s unions were opposed to strong mayor but not enough for it to take a stance.

San Diego only has had one strong mayor — the current one, Jerry Sanders — and it’s difficult, Gonzalez said, to parse how much personalities play a role. There should be a focus on making the City Council equal in power to the mayor, Gonzalez said. The council president sets each week’s council docket, giving that council member power to set the city’s agenda.

Also, Gonzalez said, there could come a time when the city elects a more labor-friendly mayor than Sanders.

“Obviously if you told me our next choices for mayor were going to be (anti-union City Councilman) Carl DeMaio or (anti-union County Supervisor) Bill Horn, we would have been opposed to strong mayor,” she said.

Charges by some strong mayor opponents that unions won’t speak out against the ballot measure because they are in lockstep with local development interests are wrong, Gonzalez said.

Look no further than Chula Vista where the Labor Council is engaged in a war with contractors over union-hiring rules proposed in Proposition G. The Labor Council has spent much of its resources this cycle fighting the ballot measure in Chula Vista and promoting a term-limit initiative for county supervisors.

Priorities are the reason why the police union hasn’t spent to oppose strong mayor, said the union’s vice president Jeff Jordon.

The strong mayor proposition, Jordon said, will increase city government’s size by adding an additional City Council seat. That sends the wrong message to city employees who are working under reduced budgets, he said.

But strong mayor’s impacts pale when compared to others. Like Friday’s decision by the city’s retirement system to force employees to pay for a portion of their disability benefits for the first time.

“There’s no comparison where I’m going to fund my resources,” Jordon said.

Jordon also downplayed a suggestion by Councilwoman Donna Frye that the union backed off its opposition to strong mayor because of pressure from the Mayor’s Office. The union had an “open and candid” discussion with the mayor about its position but that was it, Jordon said.

Asked why the police union would risk upsetting the mayor — a big strong mayor proponent — by opposing the ballot measure if it didn’t want to help fund a campaign against it, Jordon replied, “The point at the end of the day is every time you make a decision you’re going to piss somebody off.”

Union leaders realize that their decision could help pave the way for strong mayor’s passage. The lack of any funded opposition and the big money being spent in favor made Gonzalez think voters would approve the ballot measure.

“It would be pretty damaging if it didn’t win,” she said.

— LIAM DILLON

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