The fate of the two ballot measures before San Luis Obispo voters that would change how city employee pay and benefits are determined could be decided Tuesday by just a third of the city’s registered voters.
The majority of voters have yet to return their ballots despite a tumultuous and vocal battle for months between the public safety unions and those supporting Measures A and B.
As of Friday, only 8,700 of 24,000 ballots mailed to registered voters nearly a month ago had been returned. With only two days remaining to do so, some election officials say a last-minute surge of ballots isn’t expected.
It is the city’s first mail-only special election and the largest such balloting to be handled by the county clerk.
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The measures propose changes to how pay and benefits for San Luis Obispo employees are decided.
Measure A would amend the city charter to eliminate a requirement that the City Council obtain voter approval to terminate its contract with CalPERS or negotiate another contract to reduce employee benefits. CalPERS is the statewide retirement system used by San Luis Obispo.
Measure B asks voters to repeal binding arbitration — a means of neutral mediation available to public safety unions — and confine contract discussions of such issues as wages, hours or terms and conditions of employment to the collective bargaining process used by other employees.
The outcome of both measures will be felt in just a few months as the city begins negotiations with nearly all of its labor groups. Contracts expire in December.
Emotional reaction to the issues has caused some citizens to lash out at police and fire employees while in the line of duty.
It’s also led to antics such as an off-duty firefighter standing on a busy street corner donning a uniform with a fake knife in his back to demonstrate his perceived treatment by the city he serves.
This battle over pay and benefits is reminiscent of a similar debate occurring across the nation as governments at various levels search for ways to cut costs and unions fight to save the rights they have won.
Michael Latner, assistant professor of political science at Cal Poly, said the outcome of the election will likely come down to whichever side was the most effective in making more of an impression on voters.
“Whoever is more successful in getting their base out will prevail,” he said.
The lack of voter response so far disappoints those who have spent months campaigning in support of the measures.
“We are surprised and frankly disappointed that an issue we have felt is very important for a long time for the fiscal health of the community has not generated more of a response from people,” said Lauren Brown, co-chair of San Luis Obispo Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which supports the measures. “We are not sure why that is, but somehow we were not successful in capturing the attention of as many people as we anticipated.”
The slow returns also surprised Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald, who had expected a rush of ballots in the beginning.
“While people are seeing signs around town, it is hard to drive turnout with just two ballot measures,” Rodewald said. “Maybe to people it is not as much an issue as it seemed like it was going to be.”
Latner said that special elections are notorious for low voter turnout because they are not tied to a national election and the public isn’t tuned into electoral politics.
“What makes an issue salient is media coverage, not so much the relevance it has on people’s lives,” Latner said. “Public compensation and finance are fairly complicated issues — putting a lot of demand on voters to be informed.”
Supporters of the ballot measures are targeting high propensity voters — those who have frequently voted in earlier elections — and encouraging them to vote if they haven’t already.
The unions opposing the measures have spent campaign funds on efforts to call voters to spread their message.Ultimately, Latner said, it will come down to which group was the best at canvassing the city with their message.
“This is retail politics at its best and worst,” Latner said. “Going door to door and contacting regular voters — that will be the difference between success and failure.”
WHEN AND WHERE TO RETURN BALLOTS
Ballots must be returned to the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office by 8 p.m. Tuesday to be counted. The office is at the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo. Voters can request a replacement ballot or return their completed ballot. They can be turned in at the Clerk-Recorder’s Office during normal business hours Monday, and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Ballots can also be returned to one of the four drop-off centers Tuesday: the San Luis Obispo Grange Hall, 2880 Broad St.; the Congregational United Church of Christ, 11245 Los Osos Valley Road.; the Zion Lutheran Church, 1010 Foothill Blvd.; and the Creekside Mobile Home Park, community room, 3960 S. Higuera St.