San Luis Obispo unions call economic study biased

San Luis Obispo police and fire union leaders are criticizing as biased a series of cost-saving proposals drawn up by a task force convened by City Manager Katie Lichtig.

Matt Blackstone, president of the San Luis Obispo Police Officers’ Association, on Tuesday asked the City Council to launch an independent investigation into the consultant hired by Lichtig to oversee the meetings of the Financial Sustainability Task Force.

Michael Gunther, the facilitator Lichtig hired, was contracted at a cost of $10,000 to moderate the task force’s 13 meetings spanning six months.

Gunther, founder and president of the San Luis Obispo business consulting firm Collaboration LLC, was paid $225 an hour to moderate the meetings.

Blackstone contends that Gunther’s connection to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce — as the president of the board of directors and vice chair of its legislative committee — is a conflict of interest.

Both union leaders, Blackstone and Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, say there is a longstanding, strong divide between the chamber’s economic interests in the city and the unions’ wishes.

“The overall concern is that the chamber is constantly lobbying the city for more money for private businesses at the expense of public employees,” Blackstone said. “If all of the chamber’s wishes were met, the city would be in a very bad place in terms of employees and employee retention.”

At a recent public budget forum, Gunther, representing the chamber board, lobbied the City Council to focus on economic development and to make spending cuts by creating a two-tiered pension plan and eliminating binding arbitration used to determine wages for public safety employees.

“I think every city around the country is looking to figure out how to manage with lesser revenue coming in and still sustain some sort of growth,” Gunther told The Tribune on Friday. “It is the chamber’s belief that economic development will in the end support employees and city programs.”

The chamber believes that the city needs to evaluate how it used to do things, Gunther said. “There is no silver bullet,’’ he said, but changes such as a two-tiered pension plan and cutting staffing costs need to be made to continue the city’s vitality long-term.

Both those issues — cutting staffing costs and eliminating binding arbitration — were also recommended by the task force. The police and fire unions are adamantly against any change in the pension plan and getting rid of binding arbitration.

The City Attorney’s Office is reviewing the unions’ allegations about Gunther’s connection to the chamber causing a conflict of interest and will present the findings to the City Council. Lichtig stands behind Gunther’s hiring and says no conflict exists.

“His involvement with the chamber was not a factor in my decision-making, nor did his performance while facilitating the meetings give me the sense that I should have considered it during the decision process,” Lichtig said. “Everything was done in accordance with the existing rules and regulations, and I welcome the city attorney’s review of this matter.”

Gunther, likewise, said Friday his role was only as a facilitator and that he did not contribute to the task force’s report or ideas.

Blackstone and Baskin were both invited to join the task force but pulled out at its inception, citing concerns about elite special interests.

Both alleged that the 32-member task force’s makeup, handpicked by Lichtig, did not fairly represent the community and was too laden with past and present Chamber of Commerce board members, CEOs, businesses owners and other top management officials.

A Tribune analysis of the list of 32 members showed that more than 40 percent represented the business community. Twenty-eight percent were city employees, and about 15 percent represented nonprofit organizations, including two members from Residents for Quality Neighborhoods, a community organization formed in 1990. Two additional members represented Cal Poly.

“We feel completely validated at this point for pulling out when we did,” Baskin said. “We knew it was going to be an attack on public employees, salaries and benefits.”

Baskin said the attempt to show a conflict of interest is a further effort by the unions to discredit the task force’s 14-page report issued in December. “This task force should be invalidated, and the city manager should take responsibility for the final outcome and all of the backlash and current confrontation going on between city employees and the task force,” Baskin said. “If it had been a fair representation of the community, I don’t think the outcome would have been the way it was.”