By Andrews Keatts.
San Diego’s 5-year-old pension reform measure is legal, a California appellate court ruled this week.
Proponents and opponents of the plan agree on one thing: The ruling could have major repercussions throughout the state. They just disagree on whether that’s good or bad.
Voters in 2012 approved Proposition B, freezing employees’ pensionable pay for five years and switching new employees – except cops – from pensions to 401ks. The state labor board just 15 months ago ruled the city broke state law when it didn’t negotiate with unions before pursuing the initiative.
The 4th District Court of Appeal this week ruled the city didn’t need to negotiate, since it was a citizens’ initiative, not one put forward by the city itself. The city’s labor union is now pursuing an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
At issue was the involvement of former Mayor Jerry Sanders. The mayor is the city’s chief labor negotiator, yet he was heavily involved in supporting the measure. The city’s white-collar labor union argued his involvement meant it was really a city initiative masquerading as a citizens’ initiative; the city argued Sanders supported the measure as a private citizen.
The court sided with the city, saying essentially the city only would have needed to negotiate with the union if the City Council itself had put the measure forward.
“It also has important statewide implications,” said April Boling, one of the primary proponents of the initiative. “What this means is that when citizens decide to put a measure on the ballot, and they receive the support of elected officials, that we can do that. It does not require going into negotiations.”
She said she expected other cities to now consider similar pension reform efforts.
Radio host Carl DeMaio said he will now pursue a statewide pension reform initiative in 2018, based on the ruling.
Mike Zucchet, head of the city’s white-collar union, took the same lesson but didn’t find it so encouraging. The former mayor and city attorney were clear to the pension board, he said, that they pursued a citizens’ initiative to avoid negotiating requirements – and just as clearly, the court blessed that approach.
“This is now a roadmap for how any jurisdiction can do this on any issue in the future,” he said.
Local attorney Gil Cabrera, who ran unsuccessfully for city attorney last year, said the ruling was technically correct, but created an easily exploitable hole in the state’s labor negotiation requirements. He compared it to similar rulings that have exempted large developments from state environmental requirements if they’re approved through citizens’ initiatives.
“Why would any future mayor engage in (negotiation) obligations when they can simply make fundamental changes to working conditions through a citizens’ initiative?” he said.
Boling said there’s an obvious hold-up to the idea that everything can go through a citizens’ initiative now.
“They’re overlooking the cost,” she said. “This cost $1 million. Not every measure has that kind of money – it’s an expensive process.”
Former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, meanwhile, said cities could get things done faster by choosing to negotiate, and unions now have more incentive to negotiate themselves.
“It’s always better for elected to take leadership and negotiate, but when they don’t, citizens have a right to pursue an initiative,” he said.