Politics Report: City Hall Faces Big Pension Decision - Voice of San Diego

Politics UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Politics Report: City Hall Faces Big Pension Decision

Former Lincoln Club President T.J. Zane celebrates alongside supporters of the Proposition B campaign. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Monday, June 10, could be a rather historic day for the city of San Diego. The City Council will meet in closed session to decide whether it wants to keep fighting to preserve Proposition B, the 2012 initiative that ended pensions for city employees (except police officers!) hired after that year.

Catch up in 151 words here or skip to the news: After the initiative passed, the city’s unions, led by Municipal Employees Association attorney Ann Smith, filed a complaint alleging that the initiative was a deliberate attempt by the mayor of San Diego to avoid a state law called the Meyers Milias Brown Act. The law requires agencies like the city to meet and confer with unions before making changes to their benefits. The Public Employees Relations Board agreed but the city appealed to the California Supreme Court, which decided, yes, indeed, that was a violation of the law.

Thus, the city pursued Proposition B illegally. A lower court then told the city it had to make things right for employees. Proposition B, however, is still in the City Charter. City employees can’t be put into the pension system while that law is still on the books. So if making it right means putting people back into pensions, well, it can’t be made right.

OK, the news: The unions are now pursuing what’s called a quo warranto process to have Proposition B taken out of the City Charter. Smith wrote a (rather engrossing, if you’re into this stuff) memo about why the city should not fight this but join it.

She wrote that the city will be in an extremely awkward position of arguing that yes, OK, the initiative was illegally done but the consequences of it should remain in place.

“After more time is wasted, disruption and uncertainty weathered, and even more money is spent (including the reimbursement of reasonable fees and costs for all four unions’ attorneys through the conclusion), these arguments will ultimately fail because our courts will be duty-bound to apply binding legal precedent, declare Prop. B invalid and order it stricken from the City Charter,” Smith wrote. The memo was co-signed by representatives of all the city’s unions.

The city is supposed to be meeting with unions to figure out how to make employees whole for this change that happened illegally. But Smith and her allies say that’s impossible to do until the measure is removed from the city’s books.

But there’s substantial resistance to that. There were, after all, many supporters of Proposition B. Carl DeMaio announced he would do a “call to action” to get residents to call the Council to keep them from joining the unions.

And then there’s the mayor.

“Voters demanded pension reform and we should respect that, plain and simple. San Diego’s unsustainable pensions nearly bankrupted this city and taxpayers are still paying off the bill to the tune of an extra $100 million each year, so it’s unfathomable that anyone would even consider bringing back that broken model,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.

He doesn’t have much of a say, however, because …

… Did You Know?

The City Council will decide what to do about the pension dilemma in closed session. It is a legal decision whether to join the unions to take Proposition B out of the City Charter or to continue to fight for it.

The mayor obviously wants to continue to fight but it’s unclear what say he’ll have exactly.

One of the oddities of the strong mayor form of government the city instituted after a 2004 vote is how closed sessions work. The mayor, when he became the city’s chief executive, lost his vote on the City Council. The job of setting the Council’s agenda and the vote fell to the Council president.

But the mayor retained one interesting role in the change to the City Charter: He got to preside over the city’s closed sessions. Supporters of the new form of government for some reason felt that was one meeting that the mayor should run. And for 13 years, nobody has really known how that should work. The charter only says that the mayor presides over the meeting. Does that mean he gets to set the agenda?

No. From what we can tell, the mayor, the Council president and the city attorney get to set that agenda. With each new mayor, Council president and city attorney, a new modus operandi is worked out.

In short: Even though the mayor presides over the closed session and even though he adamantly doesn’t want the city to join unions to invalidate the pension reform initiative he supported, he doesn’t seem to have any influence over the closed session decision the city will make.

A Year Since Janus, Unions Did Take a Hit

Every Wednesday in the concourse around City Hall in San Diego, there’s a sort of pop-up food court. (We recommend the poke bowl.)

But along with the vendors, and sometimes the celebrants of citizenship ceremonies at Golden Hall, there’s usually a guy working the crowd trying to get city employees to stop paying fees to their unions.

It has been almost a year since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees should not be required to pay fees to unions if they don’t want to be members. Supporters of the change say employees should not be required to fund political causes and entities they don’t like. And they eagerly anticipated the political changes that would come if public employee unions — like teachers unions — and others had far fewer resources to use to influence politics.

The unions, for their part, maintain that the people who don’t pay union dues are freeloaders: They still benefit from the contracts and bargaining unions leverage and they still get union representation if they think the contract has been violated.

The California Policy Center is helping lead that push here and teamed up with Carl DeMaio, who’s a fellow with the center, to work on getting people to drop their union memberships.

“I think the most important thing is that employees know that they have the freedom not to join a union. It’s a matter of personal freedom, what you do with your own money,” said Mark Bucher, CEO of California Policy Center.

The Janus Dropoff: Swaim’s group obtained data from San Diego County right after the Janus decision in June 2018, when the largest union of county of San Diego employees, SEIU 221, saw a 25 percent drop in the number of employees who were paying dues. There were 6,995 dues-paying county employees represented by SEIU then. The next month, it dropped to 5,268.

It has remained steady around 5,300 since then.

David Lagstein, the political director of SEIU 221, said the 1,700 or so were not members who saw the decision and opted out of paying the fees. They were already agency fee-payers. These unions had members and others who were, before Janus, just employees paying a minimal “agency fee.” It’s that fee that can no longer be obligatory.

So when the fee stopped being automatically deducted, those employees have not yet proactively decided to start paying it. The rest have stayed consistent.

“People still want to be part of the union and are staying. If the goal was to change their decision, it’s failing,” Lagstein said.

What about at the city? The largest union of city employees at City Hall is the Municipal Employees Association.

MEA has posted online its membership. It represents 5,000 city employees but does not charge hourly employees any fees. That leaves about 4,200 people who could be members. It lost 200 after Janus. They were also fee-payers and not full members.

So MEA did take a hit but like SEIU 221, it hasn’t seen a dropoff since the initial impact.

“It’s fair to say that specific efforts to get people to drop membership have failed in part because when we do get an occasional call or employees get approached, we explain who is behind it and it becomes clear to them that it’s not about freedom or public employee rights. They care about diminishing the voice of that employee through union participation and political actions,” MEA General Manager Michael Zucchet told us.

We asked Swaim whether he did have a political agenda beyond this personal freedom message.

“I think it’s wonderful that some of the unions are putting more effort into listening and supporting their members and it’s very positive. To the extent that people voluntarily support them, whatever influence they have is the free choice of their members,” he said.

The Debate on the Left Over SANDAG’s Transit Plan

Rep. Scott Peters, Assemblyman Todd Gloria and City Councilman Chris Cate on stage at Politifest
From left: Rep. Scott Peters, Assemblyman Todd Gloria and City Councilman Chris Cate appear on VOSD’s live podcast taping at Politifest. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The right met Hasan Ikhrata’s plan to remake transit in San Diego with stiff opposition.

Now, it’s clear the left isn’t unified behind his proposal, either.

The Union-Tribune’s Joshua Emerson-Smith reported Monday the Metropolitan Transit System was moving forward with a 2020 tax measure that would beef up the existing bus and trolley network, rather than get to work building the 400-some miles of new, fast rail service Ikhrata imagines.

MTS Chairwoman Georgette Gómez, a SANDAG board member who enthusiastically embraced the idea, declined to comment for the story. That followed weeks of relative silence from the plan’s ostensible supporters, even while conservative leaders from North County and East County organized against it.

But perhaps most significantly, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, a leading mayoral candidate who has long positioned himself as a transit leader in San Diego, also declined to embrace Ikhrata’s proposal, saying it would come down to the details and that he wasn’t sure Ikhrata’s rail focus was necessary.

  • That kicked off a debate among Democrats and transit advocates who share the goal of building a more urban San Diego, but differ on the best way to do it.

La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent, who runs the transit advocacy group Circulate San Diego, praised Gloria’s skepticism, saying he wanted to make sure SANDAG’s plan improves transit in the places that already have it and are most likely to use it, and not just build out a network to farther flung places that don’t have it yet.

Rep. Scott Peters jumped in to praise Ikhrata’s concept, which he said for the first time would chart out a comprehensive long-term goal, instead of just settling for projects based on how much money was available at any given time.

Climate Action Campaign leader Nicole Capretz, plus labor leaders Carol Kim, Tom Lemmon and Gretchen Newsom all chimed in to agree with Peters.

  • The upshot: Ikhrata says he refuses to count votes, but at some point his proposals need approval of his board of directors. There’s no indication that the debate among Democrats means any of them won’t support his proposal when the time comes, but it shows that his radical plan to remake the transportation system isn’t controversial just among officials who don’t want more money spent on transit. How the agency doles out its transit spending is still up for debate as well, even among transit advocates.
  • Last point: Ikhrata made plenty of bold pronouncements when he first came to town, without eliciting any real opposition. That’s in part because his big ideas — transit should be time competitive with driving from anywhere to anywhere, the region needs to embrace major technological advancements coming to transportation — were vague enough on the details that everyone could hear what they wanted and ignore what they didn’t. Now, that same vague description is fueling some of the opposition, with leaders in North County saying they’re unclear about what he’s proposing for their region, and transit advocates hesitating to get on board until they hear more details.

Correction: It’s the Meyers Milias Brown Act, not the other name we have been writing and for some reason can’t stop writing but will stop now. 

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