Talk targets binding arbitration


A police officer, a firefighter, a city councilman and a local citizen faced off Tuesday to debate how San Luis Obispo residents should vote on two measures that could change city policy on pay, working conditions and retirement benefits.

On one side, Councilman Andrew Carter and Lauren Brown, co-chair of San Luis Obispo Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, argued the community can’t afford escalating pension costs and the ongoing costs of pay increases by what they call “out of town” third parties.

On the other, Matt Blackstone, president of the San Luis Obispo Police Officers’ Association, and Devin Reiss, a San Luis Obispo firefighter paramedic, stressed that the current process protects public safety in a fair, balanced way and allows city voters to have a say in any future pension reform.

More than 75 residents listened to arguments, viewed charts and asked questions about the ongoing binding arbitration battle during a two-hour forum organized by the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County.

Mail-in ballots will start arriving in San Luis Obispo residents’ mailboxes Monday. They’re due by Aug. 30.

Voters will consider two initiatives:

Measure A would allow the city to negotiate lower pension benefits for new employees without voter approval, similar to what county supervisors and the cities of Arroyo Grande and Morro Bay have done.

Measure B would undo a measure passed by voters in 2000 that stipulated a neutral third party — in this case, a three-person arbitration panel — would decide on pay, benefits and working conditions if public safety unions and the city can’t reach an agreement during labor negotiations.

The outcome of both measures could impact how much money the city has to spend on basic services. The police and fire unions — the only employees with the right to use binding arbitration — are fighting against its repeal.

“This city and City Council have declared war on their public employees,” Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, said Tuesday morning during a gathering of public employees on the City Hall steps.

Meanwhile, their opposition — including the majority of the City Council — argues that the changes are necessary to guarantee future fiscal sustainability and to keep decisions regarding the city’s pay and benefits in local hands.

The city’s pension costs have quadrupled to $8.3 million today from $1.8 million in 2002-03, and that cost is expected to increase. In addition, the pay increase awarded to police officers and dispatchers in 2008 cost an additional $4.4 million that year and $2.5 million annually.

“If we don’t get control of our costs, that’s when our public safety staffing is going to be compromised,” Carter said Tuesday. He argued that binding arbitration takes away voter control, while voters could recall or choose not to reelect the City Council members.

Reiss countered that voters chose to cut politics out of the negotiating process 11 years ago when they approved binding arbitration, and that it has improved staffing levels.

Binding arbitration is not allowed in general law cities. But 21 charter cities, including San Luis Obispo, kept it because local voters had approved it.

Tribune staff writer AnnMarie Cornejo contributed to this report.