Police and fire unions mail pamphlets on binding arbitration

A political tempest is brewing from the San Luis Obispo City Council’s steadfast intent to introduce two ballot measures that would repeal binding arbitration and allow for future pension reform.

A full-colored, glossy brochure defending binding arbitration recently arrived in residents’ mailboxes from the city’s police and fire unions.

The pamphlet, titled “We’re All In This Together,” includes detailed briefs about firefighters’ retirement benefits such as how they are negotiated with the city and why they are important.

It also defines binding arbitration and public safety employees’ rights to it.

Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, would not say how the advertisement was paid for — whether it was funded by local union money or by the union’s state umbrella association — calling it an “internal” issue.

He would also not disclose exactly how many were mailed but said they were distributed “far and wide” throughout the city.

A website, www.slotruth.org, was also launched by the unions.

“I will say that it is a concerted effort by police and fire joining together to educate the public on these two issues,” Baskin said. “Hopefully, it will educate some community members on the misinformation that is currently out there.”

A counter effort is also being formed. This week, a group co-chaired by Lauren Brown, former president of Promega Biosciences Inc., filed its intention with the city to create a committee called the SLO Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, to back the ballot measures.

Also listed with the group is CPA and Softec President Hillary Trout as treasurer. In November, she was co-chair of a committee that successfully campaigned against a citizen’s initiative that sought to prevent the extension of Prado Road.

“We think the correct place for the ultimate responsibility to reside is with our elected local officials,” Brown said. “If they are not compensating firefighters and police to the level that allows us to maintain quality people and adequate staffing, it will show up, and then voters can make the adjustments in an election.”

Brown emphasized that the committee is not anti-union.

“This is not Madison, Wis., with the governor trying to undermine the collective bargaining rights of workers,” he said. “We fully support the rights won by unions, and any effort to portray us as the Wisconsin of the west is misplaced.”

In March, the council adopted an ordinance that allows the city to conduct a mail-only ballot — tentatively planned for August — that will be used for the two ballot measures. However, the council has yet to officially call an election.

The council is expected to do a final review of ballot measures May 17 and vote on the election date then.

The council has until June 3 to call an August election, which would cost taxpayers $81,660.

At a recent meeting, council members had a heated discussion about the language of the two ballot measures while staff relayed recent employee feedback on the measures.

The council ultimately decided that a measure should be crafted to repeal — not modify — binding arbitration.

The council also voted 3-2 to soften the language of the measure seeking to repeal retirement provisions. The new language would make it clear that the council wants to kill existing requirements demanding voter approval of retirement changes.

Council members Kathy Smith and Dan Carpenter voted against that, saying they would prefer a straight repeal measure.

“We are just creating confusion,” Carpenter said. “To keep it as clear as possible will be a better guarantee of its approval.”

The San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association has threatened legal action if the City Council proceeds with an August election on the two issues.

“It has been our opinion from beginning that if these issues were going to be on a ballot, it is better to do it in conjunction with a scheduled election rather than spend taxpayer dollars to hold a special election at a time when we are in a financial crisis and could use that money to spend elsewhere,” Baskin said.