A divided San Luis Obispo City Council voted to have a special meeting next week to discuss pension reform and repealing binding arbitration.
The City Council will decide then whether it will put both issues before voters — which is required by the city’s charter — as early as the June special election being proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The unexpected, heated debate among the council members Tuesday night in a nearly empty council chamber made the divide clear. Councilman Andrew Carter, who made the request, had immediate support from newly elected council members Dan Carpenter and Kathy Smith.
Carter argued that repealing binding arbitration is necessary to allow city leaders to make the fiscal decisions needed in the face of a looming budget crisis.
Under binding arbitration, if the city and public safety unions cannot agree on a contract, the matter automatically goes to an arbitrator for a decision. This process was approved by the voters in 2000.
Carter said the urgency of the discussion is dictated by the fact that nearly all employee contracts will expire at the end the year.
“My belief is that the citizens want us to get control of our budget and that they believe that our salary and benefits are out of line,” Carter said Wednesday. “We can’t take control with binding arbitration being there.”
Councilman John Ashbaugh and Mayor Jan Marx called the move precipitous and argued that it would create too much animosity between the city and its employees during the 2011-13 budget process.
“The timing could not be worse,” Ashbaugh said. “Dealing with the budget is going to be difficult enough without the issue of binding arbitration. It is going to take all of the oxygen out of the room.”
Ashbaugh said putting binding arbitration on the ballot would “ignite a firestorm” that he fears will eliminate any possibilities of working cohesively with city employees on the budget in coming months.
Eighty percent of the city’s operating budget is spent on employee compensation.
In recent months, nearly all the groups representing city employees have agreed to freeze their pay for a year — many of them also forgoing increases to their health insurance premiums. Those actions are cutting the city’s total 2011 labor costs by an estimated $858,000.
Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, said both the police and fire unions were disappointed in the council’s decision.
“A protracted political battle over a fair negotiation process during a time when we are all working to solve the city’s economic problems will not benefit the community,” Baskin wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. “Rather than rushing to put an initiative on the ballot with the support of a bare (3-2) majority in the City Council, firefighters and police officers hope that the council would get input from and understand the real priorities of the community, which include public safety, promoting tourism and business, and protecting our quality of life.”
The growing tension between the police and fire unions and those advocating for binding arbitration and pension reform has been mounting since last summer when union leaders pulled out of the Financial Sustainability Task Force created by City Manager Katie Lichtig.
Earlier this month, the unions decided to shun an annual appreciation luncheon held in their honor by the Chamber of Commerce, saying that leaders of that organization have become too politically charged against city employees.
In 2009, the City Council considered options for placing an anti-binding arbitration measure on the ballot but voted 4-1 to not take action beyond asking staff to work with the city’s various employee associations to help solve budget concerns.
At the time, Ashbaugh and Marx both clearly supported taking no action. Carter, also on the council at the time, favored tabling the issue to see whether police and fire unions would cooperate in solving fiscal challenges.
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.