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General Manager’s Report, Second Quarter of 2011

Political Hysteria and Extremism Reigns…For Now

Thank you again to those MEA members who came to vote on our contract extension on March 22 at one of our five ratification sites. This extension essentially continues the same level of concessions agreed to by employees during the first two years of our current contract. But given all of the ongoing budget uncertainties (not to mention extreme political rhetoric) swirling around City Hall these days, locking in another year on similar terms represents a significant accomplishment for MEA-represented employees. Our contract extension also continues to contain better terms than other city bargaining units that failed to reach an agreement with the City in 2009. The harsher terms imposed on those units remain in place today.

A reasonable person might think that another year of contract “peace” with the City might translate into a year of “labor peace” with City employees. But as each of us knows all too well, the City of San Diego is not a reasonable place these days. We are all going to have to continue to fight back against the political rhetoric and scapegoating surrounding budget shortfalls, pensions and public employees. And with the Mayor’s race, five City Council district elections, and at least one extreme anti-City employee ballot measure being put before the voters right around the corner in 2012, we are going to have to deal with still more political extremism before peace might actually begin to settle in.

MEA’s contract extension also leaves the future of the retiree health benefit to a separate negotiation, which is ongoing with all City bargaining units. Given that some at City Hall believe that the City can ignore 30 years of contractual and legislative promises and simply take retiree health away unilaterally, we are not extremely optimistic that an agreement with the City can be reached. If there is no agreement, the City will soon impose some draconian cut and essentially end the retiree health benefit as we know it. We will then likely head to court for another long, protracted, expensive legal battle. The facts and the law are on our side, but the ultimate outcome in Court is of course always uncertain. That is why MEA counsel Ann Smith and your elected Negotiating Team continue to work hard and search for creative solutions that could lead to some sort of an agreement. And despite the rhetoric coming from City Hall, the City’s negotiators are also working diligently to see if an agreement on retiree health is possible. All sides would benefit from an agreement that ends the uncertainty and constant attack related to this benefit.

MEA is prepared either way. On one hand, we welcome a Court battle where the City has to explain why for 30 years it acted under one set of facts and established legal principles, only to pretend that none of that matters today. On the other hand, we understand the value of an agreement and the certainty that comes with it, and we will continue to work to find one that balances the legal and budget realities of the day.

And speaking of actual and potential litigation, there is still a long list out there. The City’s “substantially equal” litigation—where it argues that employees should be responsible for past investment losses in the pension system—is proceeding. (Notably, Ann Smith and her colleagues recently won an important pretrial motion—over the vehement objection of the City—to move the case to a Los Angeles County Courthouse.) Then there is ongoing litigation over the DROP benefit; an appeal by the city of its loss in the Aguirre pension litigation begun five years ago; potential litigation over the implementation of the recent Purchase of Service Credit “window period” Court decision; potential litigation on the retiree health benefit; and various other actual and threatened Court actions related to your pay, benefits and contractual rights under the law and our MOU.

For now, the City’s attempt to mediate a “global settlement” for all of these issues is dead, but that doesn’t mean that the idea was without merit, and we remain willing to try again. Perhaps next time, if the city is willing to hold fewer press conferences and more actual mediation sessions, we could get closer to a resolution!

The other problem with global settlement in this City is that “global” is supposed to mean everything is resolved—meaning that if we agree to settle our differences then we are done fighting with each other and ready to move forward together. But for several San Diego elected officials, media outlets and business groups, enough is never enough. The politics of attacking public employees are simply too much fun to let go of right now, and in fact they specifically do not want the party to end because they believe that the politics of “pension crisis” are good for their political careers.

Finally, the recent announcement by Mayor Sanders and friends to place an extreme, anti-City employee Charter change initiative on the 2012 ballot is disappointing but not unexpected. After all the changes and “reforms” that have already been agreed to or imposed, they want more. In fact, they want the whole enchilada, and they are going for it with this ballot measure. This is obviously not comforting nor good news, but we firmly believe that they have overreached this time.

The proposed measure is punitive, legally fl awed, built on phony “savings” that actually turn out to be costs, and compromises the public safety of our City. The proposed ballot measure is a perfect example of how elected officials in this city tend to overreact, both in good times and bad, and make poor short-term decisions that turn out to be long-term blunders. We have 14 months before the election to educate the public about the measure (if it even makes it past signature gathering and legal challenges), and that is exactly what a coalition of MEA and other City unions will do. Right now, no one seems to believe that the initiative will ultimately fail. But it will be defeated and we may very well look back on this period as the bottom of a long, multi-year slog through the valley of hysterical anti-union, anti-public employee politics and policies in the City of San Diego.

It is incredibly disappointing and somewhat disheartening that we have to continue with these battles for some time to come. But we will continue to be successful by sticking together and working together. At the same time, City employees will continue work diligently and professionally to do their job and serve the public. Your union will do the same for you and we will prevail.

Please hang in there, stay strong and stay safe.