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Ann Smith / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It is not getting much attention but right now, in the bowels of San Diego City Hall, a group is meeting regularly to try to figure out how the city will handle one of the gnarliest problems it has ever faced: The non-zero chance that a now 6-year-old ballot initiative that ended guaranteed pensions for future employees could be completely invalidated.

In August, the California Supreme Court ruled that the city and former Mayor Jerry Sanders had broken the law in 2012 by refusing to meet with city employee unions before pursuing the ballot measure, known as Proposition B.

That was just the beginning. Now, a lower court must decide what that means. Should the appellate court invalidate Proposition B completely? Can it even do that? Is there a lighter remedy? In the most serious scenario, the city would have to somehow claw back all the 401(k)-style pensions it has set up and rebuild a pension system for the thousands of new city employees it has hired since 2012.

The spectrum of potential resolutions to the dilemma is mind-bending.

And the city may not take it seriously until it exhausts another hope: The City Council voted in October to appeal the California Supreme Court’s ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The argument? That Sanders is an individual with free speech rights who had every right to pursue whatever he wanted.

That appeal has not even been filed yet, though. It will likely come in the next few days. Then, the Supreme Court can accept the petition, which may delay the decision for years, or justices could decline to hear it, letting the ruling stand.

All of this is the result of attorney Ann Smith, who represented the Municipal Employees Association, the largest union of city employees. The state Supreme Court ruling was a vindication of her insight years ago that Sanders, as CEO of the city, the chief labor negotiator, had an obligation to meet with the union before pursuing such a dramatic change to their benefits. She gave him ample opportunity to do that, and then methodically tore apart the city’s arguments every step of the way until that high court victory.

Smith does not seek out the spotlight but she is relentless and skilled and has disrupted City Hall for months to come.

This is part of our 2018 Voice of the Year list, profiling the people who kick-started San Diego’s biggest civic discussions over the past year.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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