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The financial reform ballot measure that goes before San Diego’s City Council on Wednesday morning is unprecedented in the state, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told Mayor Jerry Sanders and council members late Tuesday.

The ballot measure allows the city to increase its sales tax by a half-cent only after it cuts certain retirement benefits and lays groundwork to outsource services. Goldsmith said such a proposal was unique.

“We have not found a case of a tax conditioned upon substantive reform measures and no appellate court decision evaluates the legal issues of these particular circumstances,” Goldsmith wrote in a memo.

Three legal issues make the proposal complicated, Goldsmith said.

  • It must comply with city and state laws requiring ballot measures to have one subject.
  • The council must maintain its legislative authority in the future.
  • The conditions to meet the reform criteria must be clear.

All three issues make a legal challenge against the measure or the reform criteria possible, Goldsmith’s memo says. To fend off one possible lawsuit, Goldsmith recommends the council give final blessing to decide the reforms have been done and trigger the tax.

That issue has been a sticking point for council members concerned that oversight is needed independent of the City Council or that future councils could change their will.

The council, under prior direction from Goldsmith, has recommended the city auditor help determine if the city had met the reform triggers. The auditor could have a role, Goldsmith said, but safer legal options involve the council signing off on the auditor’s findings before the tax is levied.

Goldsmith also appears to reject a request from Councilwoman Sherri Lightner to have a third-party alone decide if the city had completed the reforms it promised. Lightner is looking like the most likely council member to switch her vote, which would derail the package. The council right now has only the minimum six votes it needs to put a tax increase on the ballot.

As for the reforms themselves, Goldsmith made one stronger than previously stated. In his proposed language, the city not only must complete a study determining if the Deferred Retirement Option Plan costs the city money, but also reduce those costs if the plan does.

Other reforms, like retiree health care for example, remain imprecise.

Council will meet Wednesday at 9 a.m. to give the ballot measure final approval. If it doesn’t act Wednesday, days are running out. The deadline to place items on the November ballot is Friday.

Here is Goldsmith’s proposed ordinance and resolution. Earlier in the day, Council members Donna Frye and Todd Gloria released a proposed ballot question.

— LIAM DILLON

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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