San Luis Obispo police, fire unions to skip chamber luncheon

San Luis Obispo’s police and fire unions have decided to shun an upcoming annual appreciation luncheon held in their honor by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, prompting the committee in charge of the event to cancel it Tuesday.

Union leaders say the intention of boycotting what would have been the 19th annual Public Safety Appreciation Luncheon scheduled for March 31 is to show union members’ displeasure over public attacks by chamber leaders.

Matt Blackstone, president of the San Luis Obispo Police Officers Association, and Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, say that recent positions taken on pension reform and binding arbitration by chamber leaders have become too politically charged against city employees.

The fallout between the unions and the chamber became public when Blackstone and Baskin pulled out of the Financial Sustainability Task Force created by City Manager Katie Lichtig last summer, citing concerns about elite special interests. Lichtig created the task force to advise her as she prepares the next city budget.

Maggie Cox, chairwoman of the Public Safety Service Committee charged with organizing the annual event, said Tuesday she was stunned by the move. The committee, composed of 25 volunteers mostly from the business community, met Tuesday to decide how to handle the news. The committee, which Cox said is independent of the chamber, contracts with the chamber to host the event. It draws more than 350 people each year.

“We are disappointed but decided that the best path forward was to cancel the event this year,” Cox said. “We don’t know why the unions would bring politics into this event.”

Blackstone said that his membership, about 64 employees, felt it would be “disingenuous” to attend the event, given their concerns.

“There are a select few people in leadership positions who have taken their position with the chamber to attack public employees,” Blackstone said. “The chamber is now leveraging its political will on the City Council by trying to push them into putting binding arbitration back on the ballot.”Dave Garth, chamber president, challenged the unions’ stance Tuesday.

“We’ve never, ever denigrated the work of our police or fire personnel — we’ve done the opposite,” Garth said. “We are the only prominent organization to honor them.”

Garth added that “in all the discussions about pensions and binding arbitration, it has been about the economic sustainability for the city. One of our roles is to be an independent voice for people concerned about the future of the city.”

Union leaders said that a letter explaining their position was mailed this week to more than 3,000 chamber members.

Letter from union leaders to chamber members