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City Council Sides With Unions, Backs Effort To Strike Prop B From Charter

San Diego firefighters were in the City Council committee room in support of ...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: San Diego firefighters were in the City Council committee room in support of the council seeking the invalidation of Prop B., Monday, June 10, 2019.

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The San Diego City Council voted 6-3 in closed session Monday to join a coalition of four local labor unions in their effort to strip 2012's Proposition B pension reform initiative from the city charter.

Aired: June 11, 2019 | Transcript

The San Diego City Council voted 6-3 in closed session Monday to join a coalition of four local labor unions in their effort to strike 2012's Proposition B pension reform initiative from the city charter.

The group of labor unions headed by the Municipal Employees Association, which represents mostly white collar city workers, intends to begin a legal process to have the initiative struck from the charter.

Because the council cannot override the voters' approval of Prop B, only a court or a second vote on an upcoming ballot can remove the initiative. Since Prop B's passage, all newly hired city workers except sworn police officers have been given 401(k)-style retirement accounts in lieu of guaranteed pensions.

The next legal process is likely to begin at a lower court level, assuming an approval by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who must sign off on the city and unions' "quo warranto" request. That proceeding would allow the unions to sue San Diego on behalf of the state of California, arguing the city overstepped its authority as a charter city and failed to keep its charter in line with state law.

The initiative's backers, which include Mayor Kevin Faulconer, could also continue the legal fight to keep it in the charter, launching another lengthy process of appeals up through the court system.

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott released a statement saying after seven years of litigation surrounding Prop B, the courts have clearly determined the city violated its obligations to meet and confer with city unions over the measure.

"The lack of certainty that surrounded Prop B has affected the city’s ability to recruit and retain employees to adequately serve residents," the statement said. "With today's vote, we can now focus on moving the city forward and strengthening the workforce that provides San Diegans the essential services they deserve."

RELATED: More San Diego Employees Are Quitting Since ‘Prop B’ Pension Reform

The state Supreme Court ruled last year that Prop B was placed on the ballot by then-Mayor Jerry Sanders and not simply a coalition of voters, making it subject to state labor laws. Sanders violated state law by avoiding negotiations with local unions while drafting the initiative, which is required under the 1968 Meyers-Milias-Brown Act when an initiative affects the benefits of union workers, the state's high court found.

Ann Smith, the attorney representing the unions, told the council that Prop B's invalidation was inevitable based on court precedent, and that the city should not "rinse and repeat" legal arguments that have already been rejected by the courts.

"Yes, 150,000 voters said 'yes' on Prop B and another 80,000 said 'no,' so you have 234,000 people who said anything about Prop B," MEA attorney Ann Smith told the council. "You, on the other hand, have 1.4 million residents in this city to serve and you have to care about what is in their best interest; that's your job."

A state appellate court also ruled earlier this year that the city is required to give back pay to the roughly 4,000 city employees who have been hired since 2012 and would have otherwise received a pension. However, that pay cannot take the form of a pension until the initiative's rules governing pensions are off the books.

About two-thirds of San Diego voters approved Prop B in 2012. Then-City Council members Carl DeMaio and Faulconer backed the initiative and have continued to do so despite the state Supreme Court ruling. Councilman Scott Sherman said the council should honor the will of the voters over that of the unions.

"They're going to try to force the city to go back to defined pensions instead of 401(k) plans, which is what took us to the brink of bankruptcy," Sherman said. "But how quickly people forget."

The six Democrats on the technically nonpartisan council voted to back the unions in their efforts to overturn Prop B while council members Sherman, Chris Cate and Mark Kersey voted against it. Sherman and Cate are Republicans, while Kersey is an independent.

Because San Diego lost the initial battle over Prop B at the Supreme Court, it is liable to pay the legal fees and expenses of the unions. The unions have put that cost at roughly $1.3 million as of March 31.

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