SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In a win for public employee unions, the California Supreme Court on Thursday said San Diego’s mayor should have met with representatives for city workers before the city placed a measure on the 2012 ballot that cut workers’ retirement benefits.
The court ruled unanimously that then-San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was so involved with the ballot measure that he was obligated to confer with union officials about it. The measure approved by voters — Proposition B — imposed a six-year freeze on pay levels used to determine pension benefits unless a two-thirds majority of the City Council voted to override it. It also put new hires, except for police officers, into 401(k)-style plans.
The court did not invalidate the San Diego ballot measure and undo the cuts approved by voters. Instead, it sent the case back to a lower court to arrive at a solution.
“We will vigorously fight any attempt to modify or overturn any part of Prop B,” said former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who authored the measure. He said any decision by the lower court to change or reverse the proposition would be appealed.
State law requires government officials to confer in good faith with public employee unions about wages and other terms of employment. San Diego argued that the pension measure was sponsored by local residents, so it was exempt from the state requirement.
But the Supreme Court said Sanders used the powers and resources of his office to play a major role in promoting the measure.
“Here, Mayor Sanders conceived the idea of a citizens’ initiative pension reform measure, developed its terms, and negotiated with other interested parties before any citizen proponents stepped forward,” Associate Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the court. “He relied on his position of authority and employed his staff throughout the process.”
The decision hampers efforts to pursue changes to government pensions by ballot initiative, which can be the only way to achieve reform because unions control the political levers of city government, said Chuck Reed, the former mayor of San Jose who has warned about the dangers of unfunded pension debt. He backed a pension measure that passed in San Jose in 2012 that cut benefits for new hires.
Reed said he met with union leaders dozens of times about his pension proposal, so Thursday’s ruling would not have posed a threat to that measure. But he said the ruling will “make it more difficult for individual councilmembers or individual mayors to help the citizens’ initiatives.”
The justices overturned a lower court ruling that could have further diminished the requirement that cities and counties meet with unions before cutting the benefits of government workers, said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, which challenged the ballot measure.
“You do have to talk to employees before you do them dirty,” he said.
The Supreme Court signaled it was ruling narrowly, noting that the “line between official action and private activities undertaken by public officials may be less clear in other circumstances.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Associate Justice Carol Corrigan wrote the court’s opinion.