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Judge Won’t Keep Pension Initiative Off Ballot

Aired 2/21/12 on KPBS News.

A judge refused today to issue a temporary restraining order that could have resulted in the pension reform initiative being removed from the June ballot.

— A judge refused today to issue a temporary restraining order that could have resulted in the pension reform initiative being removed from the June ballot.

In one of two lawsuits challenging the ballot measure, Judge William Dato rejected the request by the state Public Employment Relations Board, which contended the initiative should be disqualified because city leaders engaged in unfair labor practices.

Last week, the agency known as PERB found that the city failed to negotiate the provisions of the ballot measure with its unions.

City officials are legally required to meet and confer with unions on measures they place before voters, but that mandate does not extend to initiatives launched by private citizens and groups.

The pension reform measure is backed by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and, while Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Carl DeMaio are among its leading supporters, both claimed they were acting as private citizens.

City union leaders disagreed. San Diego's Municipal Employees Association filed a complaint with PERB, which resulted in the lawsuit. SDMEA's general manager Mike Zucchet said the judge's ruling today wasn't surprising because Judge Dato didn’t believe allowing the issue to remain on the ballot would cause irreparable harm, which is the standard that must be met for a temporary restraining order to be granted.

"But he essentially telegraphed that, before this thing is implemented, we need to have a resolution on the administrative side," Zucchet said.

On Thursday PERB will begin looking into the issue through its own administrative process. It will first attempt to mediate the dispute between the city and the union. If that doesn't work an administrative law judge will be selected to consider the case. If the judge agrees with the unions PERB could ultimately block implementation of the measure. However any ruling can be appealed to the state appellant court.

In a statement San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith applauded today's ruling.

“Judge Dato did the right thing. Access to the ballot by initiative is a constitutional right in California. In this case, 116,000 signatures were obtained and the City must place this on the ballot.”

Mayor Jerry Sanders was also pleased.

"The public deserves the right to decide this matter, and I'm glad the courts will allow this initiative to proceed," Sanders said.

He said that if passed by voters, it will be copied by other cities.

Under the initiative, most new San Diego city employees would receive 401(k) plans instead of being enrolled in the debt-ridden pension system.

Workers would also have only their base compensation figured into their eventual retirement pay for a five-year period.

Proponents say the changes would save the city at least $1.2 billion through 2040, but opponents contend it will leave employees without a viable safety net and actually cost more money in the first few years.

The other lawsuit, filed by mayoral candidate Hud Collins, claims the initiative amounts to a large-scale revision to the City Charter, not an amendment. The City Charter requires a revision to be launched by the City Council or a charter review commission, not a private ballot initiative.

A ruling on his lawsuit is also expected this week.

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