Union leader accuses city councilman of meeting violation

The clash between the San Luis Obispo Police Officers Association and members of the City Council continues as the two sides debate the future of employee compensation.

The latest salvo is an allegation by Matt Blackstone, POA president, that Councilman Andrew Carter violated California’s open-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.

At issue is an email that Carter sent to his colleagues on the council in January expressing his desire for the council to put on a future agenda a presentation by the Financial Sustainability Task Force — the 32-member group handpicked by City Manager Katie Lichtig to advise her on the city’s finances leading up to San Luis Obispo’s budget-setting process.

Blackstone alleges that the email violated a section of the Brown Act that prohibits council members from discussing, deliberating or taking action on items that fall under their jurisdiction.

Blackstone also alleges that a further violation occurred when Carter asked that the email be added to a file that is circulated to all council members, city staff and media because it was done less than 72 hours prior to the council meeting.

In April, Blackstone submitted his concerns to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. In May, the commission responded, advising Blackstone that the district attorney is charged with enforcing the Brown Act, not the FPPC.

City Attorney Christine Dietrick maintains that no violation occurred because the email focused not on a topic on a council agenda but on whether to put a matter on a future agenda.

Blackstone has not yet filed the claim with the district attorney, saying Friday he wanted to consult with the union’s legal counsel first.

Blackstone said he made the complaint because he views the email from Carter — who has led the recent push for changes in employee compensation — as a way of trying to build consensus with the remaining four council members outside of a public venue.

“I saw the city was not dealing with it and someone needs to deal with it,” Blackstone said. “This is not an attack on Andrew.”

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said he did not believe a violation of the Brown Act occurred.

“It sounds like all he (Carter) was doing was attempting to place an item on the agenda, which is considered by the attorney general’s office to be an administrative type of action,” Ewert said.

Had at least three of the five council members exchanged emails with each other on the subject, then a violation would have occurred, Ewert added.

This is not the first time that issues related to the task force have been raised.

Members of the group made several recommendations in its final report to City Manager Katie Lichtig, chief among them: to put binding arbitration for police and firefighters back on the ballot; to reduce staff; and to cut pay and benefits for city employees to compensate for the rising costs of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and a drop in revenue because of the recession.

The task force has been a contentious issue with the city’s public safety unions from its inception in June 2010. Leaders of the police and fire unions pulled out of the task force, claiming that it was biased against city employees.

In January, Blackstone asked the City Council to launch an independent investigation into the consultant hired by the city manager to oversee the meetings of the task force because he believed there to be a conflict of interest.

The city attorney concluded that there was no conflict.

Carter denies any wrongdoing in the recent claim against him, saying that the allegations are “a part of the campaign going on.”

“He is trying to use our open meetings law to make sure something doesn’t get on a public agenda,” Carter said. “It’s just a little absurd in my view.”

The city’s unions and the council have been in a protracted battle over two measures going before voters in August related to future employee salary and compensation.

Those measures, if approved, could change the way the public safety unions negotiate the terms of their salary, compensation and work conditions, ending the option for binding arbitration, and pave the way for a two-tier pension offering for new employees.