As former chiefs of police and fire for the city of San Luis Obispo, we’re writing to urge voters to approve Measures A and B.
Please understand, over our years of service we strongly supported efforts by the city and our police and fire unions to ensure that the dedicated men and women of our staffs were well compensated. We believed then and believe now that an important quality-of-life measure in our city is the excellence of our public safety employees — and in this county’s expensive housing market, good pay is necessary to attract and retain the excellent quality that we enjoy today.
It’s also true that the high quality of life in San Luis Obispo is a shared responsibility of all public servants and that as public servants, we are required to balance employees’ needs with the needs of the greater community. The key to ensuring that balance belongs properly to our elected officials, the City Council.
Measures A and B, if approved, would restore to our City Council a proper balance of local control.
Here’s why we say that:
In the 1990s, labor unions were very effective in obtaining legislative support for higher pensions as well as stronger bargaining positions. In 2000, Gov. Gray Davis signed SB 402, which mandated binding arbitration for all counties and non-charter cities. Not surprisingly, city officials across California thought the Legislature was usurping local control. In 2003 the California Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional, agreeing that it usurped the role of elected officials.
The ruling did not apply to a relatively small number of cities, so-called charter cities, of which San Luis Obispo is one, leaving it to those cities to make their own decisions on this important issue. The issue was and remains one of local control.
When the police and fire unions proposed binding arbitration for San Luis Obispo in 2000, as chiefs of our departments we were asked for our perspective on the possible consequences of binding arbitration. While we supported competitive compensation packages, we were concerned that an outside arbitrator -— someone who doesn’t live here, doesn’t know the city and isn’t accountable to taxpayers -— would make decisions based solely on the perceived needs of individual bargaining units without considering the broader impacts on the entire city.
We were specifically concerned that operational decisions such as staffing levels, equipment and important policy decisions could be made by an outsider who was not accountable to the citizens we served. For those reasons, we opposed binding arbitration then and we oppose it now.
As we feared would happen, the police officers union took negotiations to binding arbitration in 2008; the arbitrator ruled in the officers’ favor on compensation issues that now cost the city $2.5 million annually more than City Council thought prudent or affordable. That unanticipated yearly cost is more than half of the city’s structural budget deficit, and it has forced the council to cut back or delay a considerable number of basic city services including, ironically, cutbacks in public safety.
Again, both of us have long supported competitive salary and benefit packages for members of public safety, but they must be considered in the context of all of the community’s needs. And, sadly, binding arbitration in 2008 vividly demonstrated the consequences we had feared when someone outside the city, who is not accountable to residents, makes a decision that cannot be appealed.
To restore local control and financial stability to our city, we strongly urge you to vote yes on Measures A and B, which would repeal binding arbitration and restore local control to our City Council.
Jim Gardiner served as San Luis Obispo’s police chief from 1987 to 2002; Bob Neumann served as fire chief from 1991 to 2002.