San Diego leaders offer Unions mediated negotiations on pension reform

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – San Diego city leaders offered Friday to meet with municipal employee unions to settle most outstanding legal issues, including 10 current lawsuits, over the debt-ridden pension system. The offer came with the consent of Mayor Jerry Sanders, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and the City Council.

“This is a key opportunity,” Goldsmith said. “Litigation is an uncertainty. It's bad for employer-employee morale.”

The city attorney said he expected initial reaction from at least some of the unions to be negative. He was right.

The San Diego Police Officers Association quickly blasted the idea as one made to further the city attorney's political ambitions.

SDPOA President Brian Marvel said most of the lawsuits were initiated by the City Attorney's Office, and charged that Goldsmith wants to limit settlement discussions to areas where he believes his own “highly suspect” legal opinions are correct.

“For mediation to be successful, an environment of trust between the parties and a spirit of cooperation must exist,” Marvel said. “Unfortunately, the city attorney continually advises the city to break promise after promise, including a potentially two-year contract the city just signed with the SDPOA.”

Marvel said Goldsmith has lost credibility by disregarding decades of legal opinions.

The negotiations would focus on four areas:

— a proposal to freeze base employee compensation for an agreed-upon length of time, in order to stabilize the amount of money the city pays into the pension system. The city would still be allowed to add bonuses and pay-for- performance packages to attract the best employees;

— the definition of the City Charter's demand for “substantially equal” retirement contributions between the city and worker, long disputed between the two sides. A hearing on a lawsuit on the subject is set for April, Goldsmith said;

— an agreement to end all but a few lawsuits; and

— creation of a 401(k) plan for newly hired workers.

Goldsmith said he hopes to hear back from the unions by the end of the month on whether they care to participate in the negotiations, which would be handled by a mediator.

City Councilman Kevin Faulconer called the push by Goldsmith “a huge step.”

“We need to end the pension wars — the divisiveness and the lawsuits,” Faulconer said.

He said a financially sound city is in the best interest of employees.

Council colleague Carl DeMaio, an early proponent of freezing base pay, said the ball is now in the court of the unions.

“If they do not want to join us in this compromise package, we stand ready to take reform to the ballot box for a public vote,” DeMaio said.

The San Diego City Employees Retirement System has a deficit of $2.1 billion, a major factor in the city's overall budget shortfall. Underfunding of the retirement system led to a large amount of lawsuits between the city, SDCERS and employee unions.

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