Originally published September 15, 2011 at 1:49 p.m., updated September 15, 2011 at 3:54 p.m.
The fight over pension reform in San Diego hits the airwaves tonight: A local news station is airing a special that’s already drawing controversy.
KUSI will air a 90-minute special report tonight on the effort to get a pension reform measure on the June ballot. San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio has touted the KUSI special in e-mails to supporters, telling them to come sign petitions on live television. DeMaio is a primary backer of the measure, which would replace city pensions with 401(k) plans for most new hires. He said the pension reform campaign was asked to provide a panelist for tonight’s show.
“In response to that request we identified panelist. My understanding is that KUSI was offering the same privilege or opportunity to the labor unions,” he said. “The labor unions apparently don’t want to present their case.”
DeMaio said about 30,000 additional valid signatures are needed to reach the necessary total of 95,000 by the deadline to qualify the initiative for the June 2012 election, which is 29 days away. He said he would like to take 105,000 signatures to the city clerk's office to provide a cushion in case some of them are invalid.
Supporters say the pension system would save at least $1.2 billion through 2040 by giving new employees other than police officers 401(k) plans and, among other things, imposing a five-year freeze on current worker pay used later to calculate pension amounts. The workers would still receive raises and bonuses, but the extra money wouldn't be used in retirement calculations.
The plan is fiercely opposed by the city's labor unions.
DeMaio said the unions are engaging in political theater rather than discussing the issue.
Lorena Gonzalez is with the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council. She said she was invited to do a pre-taped interview, but said her request to appear live on air was denied. Gonzalez maintains the show is a glorified campaign ad for the measure.
“We had our election law attorney in Los Angeles look at the issues and they came back to us and said that they think this actually qualifies as an extended campaign commercial,” she said. Gonzalez said KUSI needs to disclose to its viewers that it’s donating the airtime to the campaign.
Dean Nelson directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. He said the distinction between news and campaigning will come down to the content on the show.
“The definition of a news program would be that you get as many versions of the truth in there as you can at the time,” he said. “So if you don’t have more than one dominate voice in there, that seems to me like a news release.”
Calls to KUSI’s general manager about the content of the special were not returned.
In addition to collecting signatures live during the televised report, signature gatherers plan to be at the Wal-Mart at 4840 Shawline St. between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.
From 5-8 p.m., they will also be at:
-- Whole Foods, 8825 Villa La Jolla Drive;
-- Target, 3245 Sports Arena Blvd.;
-- Trader Joe's, 1092 University Ave.;
-- Food 4 Less, 312 Euclid Ave.;
-- Albertsons, 14340 Penasquitos Drive;
-- Kiels, 7403 Jackson Drive; and
-- Vons, 620 Dennery Road.
James R. Riffel with City News Service contributed to this article.