Manchester's grand vision, the end of the Frank Wuterich trial, retiree health benefits, convention center vote.
January 27, 2012 1:19 p.m.
Guests: Mark Sauer, senior editor, KPBS News
Tony Perry, SD Bureau Chief, L.A. Times
Katie Orr, metro reporter, KPBS News
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Friday, January 27th. My guests at the Roundtable today, Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times. Welcome back, Tony.
PERRY: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr.
ORR: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Mark Sauer, senior editor for KPBS News.
SAUER: Good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: The last Camp Pendleton Haditha trial ended this week, and the conclusion has been controversial. Wuterich pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty in the incident that cost 24 unarmed Iraqis their lives. He will serve no jail time. And if our listeners would like to comment, that number is 1-888-895-5727. Tony Perry has covered this case for a lot of years, from I think the time it broke back in 2006. Did you expect the case against Wuterich to end in a plea deal?
PERRY: Yes. And this is exactly what was expected. This is exactly what the preliminary hearing officer an article 32 officer in 2007 said would happen, that the prosecution did not have the evidence to pursue the heavier charges, but that dereliction of duty for sergeant Wuterich not having sufficient control over his marines was a charge which could be successfully. So it ended exactly where the hearing officer five years ago predicted.
CAVANAUGH: So why didn't they wrap that up then?
PERRY: Well, you get lawyers involved, things slow down. Prosecution fought for two years to get the outtakes from a 60 minutes interview that the defendant had given to Scott Pelly. That delayed it. The defense fought for a long time on an issue about undue command influence, didn't win that. So I don't think anyone said hey, let's really, really slow it down. But the avenues both sides pursued showed it down.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of penalty will Frank Wuterich have to pay?
PERRY: None. None. The lieutenant general who approved the plea bargain said also in approving it, no jail time. Now, Wuterich will most likely be demoted to private, and he will be discharged from the United States Marine Corps probably fairly rapidly, and probably under circumstances other than honorable, but there's a whole gradation of discharges that he could receive, some of which would have almost no penalty, some of which would make him ineligible for GI benefits. But no time behind bars. None of the eight defends in this case spent a moment behind bars.
CAVANAUGH: In your report on the plea and the sentencing of Frank Wuterich, you included a wide range of reactions am testimony us about some of those.
PERRY: I think the active duty marines' concept was thank God it's over, it should never have been brought, it was criminalizing what a young, inexperienced squad leader did in a heartbeat under a stressful situation, and it was leaning on him in a way that was unfair. That's one reaction. Another reaction, of course, from the Iraqis is this shows exactly why we couldn't trust the Americans to stay in Iraq beyond January 1st. We couldn't trust them to investigate and prosecute their people when they kill Americans. A number of legal scholars slapped their foreheads and said this is an example of how not to investigate an alleged war crime. So yeah, a wide range of viewpoints.
CAVANAUGH: And mark?
SAUER: Well, the concern -- you mentioned the 60 minutes thing, and we have a trial in the Court of public opinion, and it extends all the way back to Iraq. That developed after. This verdict didn't go unwatched there.
PERRY: No, it didn't. And my colleague Patrick McDonnell said there was outrage in Haditha and throughout Iraq. Officially. It's hard to know how widely spread in a country of 30 million people any one news event is. New York Times also said there was outrage.
SAUER: And the officials reacted? We had a news story the other day saying I don't know what they can do, but they're threatening to do something.
PERRY: Sure. The Iraqi officials are threatening some legal action. That's not going to happen. They have no recourse. It is what it is. When this occurred, the Americans were functioning under a system in which they would prosecute any transgressions, not the Iraqis. The Iraqis have no place to go on this except into the streets and slap their foreheads with disgust.
SAUER: And the Marines initially covered this up, did they not?
PERRY: I wouldn't go with the word coverup. I would screwup. They didn't investigate it thoroughly, they put out a press release that was misleading. But you have to understand that when this went down, they thought it was part of an overall attack, that a lot of things were going on that day. The Marines from this battalion had been warned there would be complex attack, and they would include road-side bombs and snipers and suicide attacks. Of so when this convoy was hit and Miguel Terrazas was killed, and two others were severely hurt, and then they heard gun fire coming toward their direction, and the marines heard that other things were going on all over town, there were snipers all over town and attack, they thought ah, ha! The battle is joined! This is Fallujah three, and they use the Fallujah rules, which is go into a room you think is hostile, go in firing grenades, firing M16s. That worked in Fallujah. The only people in Fallujah at that point in November of 2004 were insurgents themselves were heavily armed. That was not true in Haditha. There were still families. The Marines thought there was a fire fight ongoing, and that a gunman was shooting at them in one of these houses, and they went in as they would have in Fallujah. And when it was all over, 19 people in three houses were dead, including three women and seven children.
CAVANAUGH: Tony, the Iraqis are not happy with this outcome. But there's very little they can do about it. Perhaps a bigger question is, does this affect our troops still fighting in Afghanistan?
PERRY: I suppose it does. But you'd be surprised at how isolated and isolating living in a third world country is. In Helmand province, for example, no radios, no television, no Internet. And so their concept of the world stops at about 100 miles away from or Narwah, or Marja. Now, there is an endemic sense of suspicion about outsiders, be they Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, that makes the US mission there very, very difficult. But I don't see that this would transfer over. Maybe at the level of the political class in Kabul, but not at the level of farmers working their fields.
ORR: Well, I just wonder has anyone beyond San Diego, anyone higher up in the military weighed in on this plea deal on the case as a whole? Have we heard from the Secretary of Defense or anything about this?
PERRY: Not really. I think they would prefer that Haditha after all these years just go away. But you have to remember that when it first hit the fan, time magazine in early 2006, the commandant of the Marine Corps went to Iraq and went base to base with the Marines and said we're not going to have this anymore. And they did refocus their training to clarify it to give greater protection to civilians caught in the middle, as it were. But you have to realize in the modern world, you're not facing an army that has uniforms and ranks and helmets. You're dealing with an insurgency that not only hides behind women and children but likes to draw fir to women and children exactly for this kind of outcome. You lose the high moral grade as an invading power, you're cooked. And that's what weighs in the minds of both the insurgency on one side, and more enlightened military leaders on the US side.
SAUER: Let's go back to that. A lot of this was brought up if we go all the way back to the debate leading up to the invasion of March 2003, if I recall, about this house to house, you don't have the uniforms, everything you just said about the nature of this warfare. In many ways, this was not only predictable, it was predicted in that debate. And people tend to forget that. We invaded this country. People in these specific homes are sitting there, and they didn't invite us into their country, they didn't ask us to deliver them from anything, and here we are.
PERRY: As the Marines from Camp Pendleton pushed across the line into Iraq, they were the first conventional troops in, each marine had a 1-page instruction from the commanding general saying engage your brain before the weapon. We are not against the Iraqi people. They new what could happen if there were civilian casualties. And there was a process in 2003 that when there were civilian casualties, the Marines moved on it very quickly, with lawyers and photographers, and everybody else. Let's get to the bottom of this, let's clean it up. Well, along came 2004, the two big battles in Fallujah, which were classic force on force battles, and that kind of investigation fell by the wayside. By late 2005, when this battalion was in Haditha, a very nasty place, where a lot of marines had been killed, where the insurgents had chopped off the arms of a lady doctor for wearing a sleeveless blouse, where they had executed dozens of Iraqi police officers who were friendly to the American, a very nasty place, so when this went down on the morning of November 19th, 2005, they thought ah, ha! The battle is joined, and they went to it. And when the smoke cleared and there were civilian casualties, they did a quickie report, and said move on. Well, it department move on. And it hit the fan, and there was political culmination in Baghdad and Washington. And within eight months, there were criminal charges against eight marines.
CAVANAUGH: I want to follow up on what mark was saying and your answer. We spoke earlier about this when the plea deal came down on Monday. And we spoke with a former marine colonel, Jane Siegel, she said mistakenly that Wuterich had spent six years in prison awaiting his trial. You cleared that up for us. She mixed that up with sergeant Mullins and a similar ordeal. But she also said something that I think goes to the heart of all of this controversy. She said when you go to war, you've already lost the battle. Do you think that is the final word on this? Isn't there an area in which there is responsibility to be taken when an incident like this happens, even in warfare?
PERRY: Absolutely. That's a whole genre of the war, the war of armed conflict. The Geneva convention, and all of that, and it is pursued after a fashion in these kinds of cases. But I think one thing this tells us is prosecuting a combat action, not something like Abu Ghraib, which wasn't a combat actions, or some of those dreadful actions where people got out of control and acted savagely. But to prosecute a combat action in the middle of a war, to send investigators in, this is like driving 100 miles an hour out the freeway, leaning out with your wrench and trying to fix your carburetor. Very, very difficult. NCIS sent an investigator over. He was able to spend nine minutes in one of the houses where women and children were killed because there was a fire fight outside. Got a slow start too, and that didn't help. By the time the investigation started, the idea. Forensics had flown out the window. They're still not sure to this day what the names of the dead were. Let's be candid. The Marines cooked up a story. The Iraqis cooked up a story. The Americans paid money to the Iraqis. That influenced their stories. That had to be reconstructed. People change the their stories. Both the Americans and the Iraqis changed their stories. Then there was cultural slippage between who can tell what truth how in both cultures. The whole thing was a mess from the beginning, and ended up of the eight, six had their charges dropped, and the officers were only charmed with not doing a thorough investigation. And then Wuterich did this plea bargain ape. The whole thing was a mess from the beginning of the investigations, which were started late. I don't know that you can extrapolate from this case. For example, Jane Siegel mentions the ham dennia case, eight defendants, eight convictions. They moved on it quick. Smaller case. This case, for all sorts of idiosyncratic reasons is probably itself not illustrative of anything else.
SAUER: You wonder if this isn't emblem attic of the war itself, and maybe in the end, we're all shocked and not awed.
CAVANAUGH: We've got to leave it there.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests at today's Roundtable are Tony Perry of the LA Times, KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr, and Mark Sauer, senior editor at KPBS news. The news ownerships of the Union Tribune put an editorial on the front page of the paper last Saturday, advocating for a big convention center stadium entertainment complex on the downtown waterfront. I want to remind you, we are inviting our listeners to join the conversation if you'd like to give us a call. Mark Sauer, you worked at the UT for many years. How unusual is it to have an editorial featured on the front page?
SAUER: It's pretty unusual. It was rather hokey 206 the season's greetings from the owners. Mr. Manchester and Lynch have continued that from the Copley days. And you don't see the New York Times or the LA Times doing that kind of thing. Okay, fine. But to have an editorial with a new owner being a developer, and to have half the front page on Sunday, their biggest readership, promote this boosterism idea they said they wouldn't when they came in is remarkable.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us what this big idea is for the San Diego --
SAUER: It's a big new old idea, and one that apparently Manchester and Lynch had pushed for for some time. And it's to go down to this are tenth avenue marine terminal, and take these 94 acres and turn it into a fancy now, big football stadium, a sports arena for a now nonexistent hockey or basketball team. A beach, a parkway, etc. In this massive grand vision instead of the piecemeal Convention Center extension, the piecemeal chargers stadium down in that area of the east village. We're going to have this grand vision for San Diego, and it's easier to do, and the $1.5 billion don't layout where that money is coming from. But this is the whole idea. Do it all in one fell swoop.
CAVANAUGH: So it is very different from what's being proposed officially, the idea of placing a new chargers stadium, at least that's being explored.
SAUER: Exactly right. Those are two projects that the mayor has pushed behind him. His response to this whole idea, and this was a statement from the mayor's office, the city is ready to move forward on a realistic plan to create jobs now, thousands of jobs to protect our convention business, increase revenues for neighborhood services, etc. And they don't think much of this idea. There's plenty to debate, and plenty of controversy here. I should say there's also a second story, really, and what's what you said at the outset, which is using the newspaper here to have as your bully pulpit, you're buying ink by the truckload now, and a lot of folks in the comments in the UT itself, my idea is maybe this is Papaganda.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: Papa Doug has his vision out there, and some of the readers are saying, wait a minute, we want objective news, tough, fair analysis, and we don't want Papaganda.
ORR: I don't think the mayor's office is the only office who doesn't think this is a great idea. The UT had an article this morning asking eight experts around San Diego whether or not this proposal, which is only being proposed by the UT San Diego editors at this point is viable at all, and six out of eight of them said no, it's not viable for a number of reasons. You have to deal with the port issues, getting the boats in and out, the money, the fact that stadiums really don't tend to be a good investment for cities, and two that gave support was conditional support. So you give the paper credit for that, they propose this idea, and the reporters said, oh, it won't work.
CAVANAUGH: Sarina is calling from Mission Hills.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you so much for taking my call. I use the word bully pulpit as well regarding Doug Manchester, and the UT. I have canceled my subscription because I don't want projects like this shoved down my throat. The people of San Diego have been plagued for decades by the good old boy network, and Doug Manchester and his cronies are perfect examples." I want in to go forward because I want to go forward." And I get incensed that he's trying to tell us that we're just Sheeple, and if we don't support him and his project, we're just wrong, we're just losers.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call. So we've got Sheeple, and we have Papaganda.
SAUER: Coining words left and right.
CAVANAUGH: It's crazy! Patrick is calling from downtown. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: I have a couple questions on this. First of all, I want to express my outrage too with what Manchester is doing.
[ AUDIO CUT OUT ]
CAVANAUGH: -- for new owners coming in, proposing a big development project?
PERRY: There's a long, honorable/dishonorable history of this. I take a paycheck from the LA Times whose family ownership mixed the journalism that they were producing, and their own economic interests for a Hong long time, and the Hearsts in San Francisco.
SAUER: Oh, the Hearsts!
PERRY: And the McCormicks in Chicago. This is a throw back. This is the way newspapers used to be run. The problem is, the Kay may have passed when you can use an editorial page in this fashion. You can say here's the orders, folk, from my desk, now carry them out. I have a friend who just bought something he's wanted since 1985, and that is a 1985 Plymouth. Now, I can't help but think the car -- if he had butt it in 85, it would have been a lot better. Now he's got himself a real old car that needs fixing. I feel that way about Manchester. He may have bought something that would have worked this way a whole generation or two ago. I'm not sure you can still do that, even in San Diego, a 1-newspaper town.
SAUER: Yeah, this isn't the days of Hearst where the reporter is down in Cuba saying, hey, nothing is happening. Give me the story, I'll give you the war. Maybe he's thinking he's going to be citizen Doug. And we're going to go back to the days of yellow journalism.
PERRY: But far be it for me to rise in defense of papa Doug, I don't know that he would rise in defense of me, but I do like that he's trying to get the city off of this sourness of let's talk about pensions on and on and on for a decade. And let's talk about what kind of city we want. I would imagine he's frustrated with the pension talk and wants to talk about a vision. Now, the vision is old wine in kind of an old bottle too. But if what he is saying, enough with the libertarian theme park view of city employment, etc., etc. There's something about that that I can cheer to.
ORR: It's not a vision that is really unique at this point too. The mayor's office is pushing all these development projects. His state of the city opened with a video of all of these big projects. That's his vision for the city too. And I think a lot of people would say we can have a vision for the city, but it doesn't have to be multi billion-dollar projects. Don't we have a vision where our streets are paved and our parks are clean and safe and open all the time?
PERRY: His vision is your classic white guy, downtown, let's meet at the Cuyamaca club and decide what San Diego is going to be like vision, 1965. It's an older vision, and it's a top-down vision, and it's a few guys around the table with brandy and cigar, and let's decide what this city is going to be like.
SAUER: And bear in mind, the mayor is not covering himself. Is this still a huge news organization in this town with great influence. And we've built tons of things here, and many of them are wonderful, it says on the front page we're America's finest city, and that's swell. But we've built some things that are not so wonderful too. One is City Hall where the mayor works. Sports arena down in the midway district. The old county courts building. A lot of these places were just eye-sores and obsolete, and dysfunctional places when they were built. It doesn't mean we developed something in San Diego, and it's wonderful. You've got to cover this objectively.
PERRY: The real test is going to be when Manchester's hotel project goes baing to the California coastal commission which sort of laughed it out of town.
CAVANAUGH: The Navy pier redevelopment.
PERRY: Yeah, let's see how they, our former colleagues in mission valley, cover that.
SAUER: Exactly right.
PERRY: When their boss's economic interests, not thought ideological interests, but economic interests are on the line.
SAUER: That will be the test.
CAVANAUGH: Sean, welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to comment that I thought it was good fiduciary them to have that editorial, especially following the city address, where so many of the items discussed were big-ticket, big-taught planning for the future grand projects. The library, the Convention Center, the football stadium, etc. And I didn't think it was out of order for the paper to Espouse I view about the football stadium and the Convention Center that wasn't directly in mind with the mayor.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call. Let me ask you guys a little bit of what you were saying, Tony. If a paper does stimulate this kind of discussion, isn't that a good thing?
ORR: Well, I think it's good, and certainly as the caller said, it's timely. We have votes going forward on the Convention Center now. There's no formal proposal for the Chargers stadium but it's certainly something everybody is talking about.
PERRY: I think we need to point out that the things -- many of the things we love most about San Diego, are the zoo, Balboa Park, mission bay park, would not today possibly be possible with the politics of San Diego, with the sort of small thinking that we've seen in the last decade to two. So we have to realize that the folks that built San Diego, they were kind of full of themselves too. And some of the stuff, while I agree with Mark, the City Hall, are and the sports arena are sinkers, a lot of the stuff they built gives us what we have today. So we'll just have to see with Manchester and Lynch.
SAUER: Absolutely right. The newspaper is to be a marketplace of ideas. But they should be, as I say, doing straight news reporting, analysis, inviting all sorts of points of view, but not necessarily being news-makers themselves in terms of pushing this grand vision. It's different when the mayor proposes it.
CAVANAUGH: And some see it unsettling, a major development project being proposed by someone who's made a name for himself by being a developer.
CAVANAUGH: How closely -- there was a bit of a disclaimer at the bottom of this editorial about the fact that Doug Manchester is not involved in this?
SAUER: Yeah, it does it on the hotels that are adjacent to this particular site. It's a bit disingenuous. The embarcadero, not terribly far away. It would obviously be impacted.
PERRY: To a certain degree, what we're seeing is the Union Tribune ownership, and this is the wrong phrase, but it's sort of out of the closet now. During the Copley years, they acted as the ex officio of the City Council, the water board. And I remember when a big water project appeared in San Diego, it appeared in the editorial page. Nobody knew this discussion was going on, and it appears in the editor 58 page. And Bob Kittle, a wonderful former colleague of ours, he was the editorial page for many year, and he was the face of the newspaper. Only in San Diego. Every other large city, the editor is the face of newspaper.
PERRY: Here it was the editorial page. And acted as an ex officio member of all the elected bodies in town. At least they're out in the open. They're on the front page. Here's what we want and we're going to hammer you till we get it!
CAVANAUGH: Bob is calling from Del Mar. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I welcome the opportunity. And I wanted to just mention that obviously there is a problem, I think, when you have special interests like that that are using an avenue such as a newspaper to express certainly their wishes and wants. And certainly if Manchester didn't own the paper, I really request whether you would have seen this editorial on the front. But I also wanted to mention that there doesn't seem to be a clear revenue stream here where the funds would come from. Of I think that needs to be clearly laid out, as well as the fact that egress and ingress out of the area, via the existing roadways, I think that really has to be studied. Anybody who's been in that area I think would certainly question how traffic would certainly flow in and out when you have a project of this scope and size.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. Any of those small ideas included in the big idea?
SAUER: Well, the same was said about Petco part. But I come from Detroit which had no big parking lots around a downtown baseball stadium. I knew they wouldn't have traffic problems because it just disperses. Construction project would be a big problem. I don't know that's such a huge concern. It would be something to address if they got this off the ground.
PERRY: If you have an NFL stadium with 12 games a year, you'd have 12 traffic jams a year. I think we could probably handle it.
SAUER: Especially since they're on Sunday.
PERRY: And will to a certain degree, we're reverting back now, I would imagine this is the sort of thing that drives Manchester and listen crazy. Suddenly we're talking the details rather than the vision of it. Would we ever have had Balboa Park, mission bay park if we had gotten quickly into the details as opposed to what it is we want to city to look like?
ORR: Where are you going to tailgate? That's half the fun!
SAUER: A drunk finds a way!
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: At Doug's house!
CAVANAUGH: Where does this put the reporters at UT?
SAUER: In a tough spot. I have a story here in front of me, Katy mentioned the story today by Roger Showley. And they're doing the stories they do. And that's the whole problem with the front page thing here. There's a distinct and important firewall, and there was when we were there, and they would say what they wished on the editorial page, but we covered the news in the newsroom. And I just don't know. I haven't canvassed my excolleagues enough. I will this weekend am but that's a very good question.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we have to move on. I want to thank everyone.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Let me introduce the guests at the Roundtable one more time. Tony Perry of the LA Times, KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr, and Mark Sauer, senior editor at KPBS news. The San Diego City Council approved a breakthrough on city worker retiree health benefits. Supporters say the agreement negotiated with city unions will save San Diego hundreds of millions of dollars in the future. We invite our listeners to give their opinion on this agreement. Katy, tell us about this deal.
ORR: This is a big deal for the city. The pension is the one that gets a lot of the attention. But the retiree healthcare benefit was a $1.1 billion unfunded benefit for the city. Anyone who is that's because in the '80s, mayor Pete Wilson wanted to take San Diego out of Social Security, and to get the worker approval for that, he promised this benefit to them, and it's cost a lot of money. So now, it splits up those workers into three tiers, and they can choose from a plan, and they have to in some cases contribute to that plan, but it provides them a benefit for the rest of their life after they retire.
CAVANAUGH: And how much does the city project this is going to save us?
ORR: Well, it's going to save about $700 million over the course of 25 years because it will reduce the annual required contribution. It shaves about $300 million off of the unfunded liability. The other half of that, $500 million, has to do with employees that are already retired, and that cannot be changed. But it saves money in those other areas.
CAVANAUGH: I think what was so interesting about this story is that the unions and the city basically negotiated this agreement. How many unions signed?
ORR: The six laborer unions with the city all signed onto this. And they were negotiating for about two years. Up until 2005, they didn't even know what they owed on this. And they did an audit and came up with this $1 billion number. And the city doesn't think they should change it, because there was a disagreement who this was a vested pension benefit. That pension is vested from the stay you start working. But court rulings have ruled this is vested the day you retire. So they can change it up until the day you leave. So the city got that ruling and started negotiating with the unions and came to this agreement.
CAVANAUGH: But neither the city nor the unions wanted to wait for a final decree on this particular matter by a court. Why was this?
ORR: Well, I think there's a lot at stake for both of them. For the union, if the Court ruled against them, then they lose this valuable benefit for the city. If they get ruled against and they have to pay how many millions of billions of dollars more. At some point, it was probably in their best interest to get a benefit. Which some people might say is fairly generous. Option A, which not everyone is eligible for, they get CLOSE to $9,000 a year after they retire for the rest of their life to go toward healthcare. So that's a good benefit. If you're relatively healthy and --
SAUER: So that would be supplemental. In other words, you're retired, you would think Medicare would be your bulk plan here.
ORR: That's why some City Council members, Carl DeMaio and Lorie Zapf voted against this, they said you are eligible for Medicare, why would we keep paying for this, taxpayers, when you are eligible for that? But it comes down to lawsuits as well. As part of this deal, the union vs to agree to drop the lawsuits that were pending and go forward with the other lawsuits.
SAUER: And they've got a fixed cost now.
ORR: Right. It's like $100 a month if while -- while you're working. The city sets up a defined contribution for you, and let's the market decide.
PERRY: In the spirit of papa Doug, let me think big here. Is it over now? Is the healthcare dispute of the pension dispute now over? Can we move on?
ORR: Yes, you can move on. The retiree healthcare, this is a 15-year agreement. And in two year, if the city decides it doesn't like how things are playing out, it can bring it back to council and make some changes. So I guess I should say no!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ORR: If they decide things aren't working, we might see this again. But from the mayor's perspective, and maybe the laborer unions, yes, this is an agreement they're all good with.
PERRY: What about the laborer unions? Is this an indication that they think the Courts and public opinion are just -- aren't going their way? And so this is a firewall? We'll give you this and no more?
ORR: As I was saying, they get something for their workers now. And it's 7,500 workers, so it's not an incredibly large number. But it secures a benefit for them that they didn't have. And they're fighting battles on a lot of fronts, outsourcing on the city, this pension battle. In one regard, maybe this is something they could sort of wrap up and say we get this benefit, it's something for our members, and we're able to move on.
PERRY: Is there any indication that the City of San Diego has been more generous and profligate with its employees?
SAUER: This is happening all over the kitchen.
ORR: I think San Diego is unique because it pooled out of Social Security and promised this benefit. And I don't know that other cities have pulled out of Social Security in that way. So it might be unique in that regard that this started in the '80s, and '90s when times were good and everything was great. Then these things started falling off, and they ditch know how much they owed! No one did an audit until 2005.
CAVANAUGH: I wanted to reiterate something you said in passing, and that is in a sense that this particular problem was already solved in that no new hires from 2005 are getting this retiree health benefit; is that right?
ORR: Well, yes, in 2005, they just cut it off because it was getting too expensive. But they didn't realize then, they didn't have the Court decisions to back them up that said they could change this benefit. So it's not an issue for employees after 2005. But for everyone before then, they were promised this, and this arrangement gives them some form of that benefit.
CAVANAUGH: How deeply involved with the city attorney?
ORR: The laborer unions were criticizing him. People were saying, you've had all this time, why did you bring these up now? So they started -- they continued it until the next day, and overnight they ironed out those issues and moved on. But this has been a two-year process, they announced this agreement earlier this year, and it's just taken time to make its way to the City Council. But -- so this is it on the city's part. The city has approved it. Now they have to bring it to the employee, and the employee vs to choose the plan they want.
CAVANAUGH: This may not be a question that you can answer straight out, but I'm just wondering what if any impact this might have on the city pension reform initiative that voters are going to be seeing in June.
ORR: I think it raises the quiet, if you can get an agreement with the unions on this, why can't you get an agreement on the pension? I think it goes to the difference in vesting. Again, your pension is vested the day you are hired. So for all these employees that have been hired, they already have these benefits locked in. So there isn't this wiggle room that you have with is the retiree healthcare. Pensions are a vested benefit. That's established. Retiree healthcare, they weren't sure. So that's where they have the room to negotiate.
SAUER: If you erode the pensions reform with that, wee talking about the retiree health benefit now that's diminished. The wages have been frozen and positions unfilled. This is just not a real attractive job working for the city, it would seem to me. We're going to get a bunch of mouth-breathers and folks who can't work any of the machinery. Who's going to be running the city in the future when we have a decent job market again and nay have to compete in that market? It's just not that attractive, you would wonder.
CAVANAUGH: As you said yourself, though, this is the sign of the times. It's happening on every level of government. People are trying to shrink those pension benefits. Before we move on, I wonder if this doesn't give laborer something of a talking point in counter racketing the pension reform initiative saying basically what Katy said. We can negotiate these things, we don't have to have these things ripped out from under us, and something that they didn't have before in countering this initiative.
PERRY: Could be a way for them to stop the Carl DeMaio juggernaut and say we're reasonable! We'll talk! But once they stop that juggernaut, one would ponder would they then go through with it?
ORR: I think they will tell you they've already done that, that the city has enacted pension reform, and that it needs to be given time to work. But that is not something that is easily translatable to voters, I don't think. They still, in the end, get pensions, and the public sentiment is just against pensions right now. But if you ask the unions, they said they have negotiated, they've taken reductions in pension benefits, and they've raised the retirement age in some cases. So from their point of view, they negotiated in good faith. They have contracts in place they believe the city is obligated to follow. And this pension ballot initiative would push those to the side.
SAUER: You're talking about the weakness of laborer, only 70% of workers now belong to a laborer union. So it is an indicator of the weakness of them.
CAVANAUGH: Just a couple of questions about another voter at City Hall this week. The City Council's 6-2 vote to create the convention center financing district, as part of mayor Sanders' big vision.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: So what is that?
ORR: What it does is it basically created a special district that encompasses all the motels and hotels in San Diego, are the City of San Diego. And it will allow them to start voting to whether or not they want to increase their room taxes 1 to 3% based on how close they are to downtown to fund a new Convention Center.
CAVANAUGH: And isn't this a controversy about whether hotel owners can approve this tax on their own? Doesn't a tax like this have to go to the voters? I think that we talked about that before.
ORR: Well, there is some controversy because -- so you need 2/3 of the hotel and motel owners to vote to approve this tax. Of and the controversy is that this is public money. Will so can you use this public money and designate it for this specific project? The people involved in it say yes, you can. There are other people who question whether or not that can be done. In fact, in some regard, the Chargers have made noise about saying we don't think you can do this because if you're going to raise this tax money, they would like to see that used to go toward a new stadium. Of course they're upset with this project because they had proposed joining them, making it a Convention Center/Chargers stadium project. The Convention Center people want no part of that.
CAVANAUGH: Do the Chargers still want the mingling of the two?
SAUER: They want a stadium. They're looking at everything.
ORR: Absolutely. But this has nothing to do with a Chargers stadium. It's just about funding the expansion. And it's not clear where the hoteliers are going to come down on this because it's opposition to it. Someone who has a hotel in Rancho Bernardo may not want ton crease their room taxes because they don't believe they'll see any benefit from an expanded Convention Center. So it'll be interesting to see how it comes out.
CAVANAUGH: This is a step toward mayor Sander's idea of an expanded Convention Center. These things go step by step, you create the financing district and so forth. Wasn't there something to relate back to what we were talking about, are the editorial in the San Diego Union Tribune that the idea that they didn't want to interfere with this process if indeed it was moving in the right direction?
SAUER: Well, yes. And again, that's the grand vision as they say, and they're laying it out there here. And if therapy to come on and presumably meet papa Doug's idea of getting us back to the great, finest city that we deserve to be, then perhaps they'll get on board at some time. But yeah, it would seem to be completely opposite of that 94-acre development we talked about.
PERRY: And Manchester has played a significant role in disputes about increasing the transient occupancy tax, after the big fires a decade ago. So he's had his hands in this before. We'll see if his hands get involved, and his newspaper, and his front page, etc. If nothing else it's going to be interesting.
SAUER: Well, you're selling newspaper accident, what are they going to do next? It's a lot more fun to have a stayed old grayed paper in town, I'll tell you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, all of you.
ORR: Thank you.
PERRY: My pleasure.