Calif. High Court Rules San Diego Pension Cuts on Ballot Illegally

Decision could cost the city millions in creating retroactive pensions.

The California Supreme Court has overturned an appeals court ruling that had upheld pension cuts enacted by San Diego in 2012. The court said the city was not legally allowed to put the pension cuts, also known as Proposition B, up for a public vote without first meeting with unions.

The decision could require the city to spend millions of dollars creating retroactive pensions for more than 3,000 workers hired since the cuts took effect.

In April of 2017, the Court of Appeal, Fourth District of California, overturned a ruling by the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) that found that San Diego violated the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA) when floating Proposition B, which was supported by then-mayor, Jerry Sanders. The MMBA requires government employers to meet and confer in good faith with labor unions and representatives of recognized unions regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.

The appeals court ruled that the meet-and-confer obligations under the MMBA have no application when a proposed charter amendment is placed on the ballot by citizens, but instead apply only to proposed charter amendments placed on the ballot by the governing body of a charter city. The appeals court sided with San Diego, which argued that the pension reform proposal was sponsored by local residents, not the city.

However, the state’s Supreme Court said Sanders used the powers and resources of his office to play a major role in promoting the cuts.

“When a local official with responsibility over labor relations uses the powers and resources of his office to play a major role in the promotion of a ballot initiative affecting terms and conditions of employment, the duty to meet and confer arises,” wrote Justice Carol Corrigan for the Court.  “Sanders had a duty to meet and confer with the unions. Allowing public officials to purposefully evade the meet-and-confer requirements of the MMBA by officially sponsoring a citizens’ initiative would seriously undermine the policies served by the statute.”

Those policies include “fostering full communication between public employers and employees, as well as improving personnel management and employer-employee relations,” she wrote.

The state Supreme Court said it was up to the Court of Appeal to “address the appropriate judicial remedy.”

Former San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, who authored the pension reform enacted in 2012, vowed to fight to keep the cuts intact.

“We are concerned that the Supreme Court ruling opens the door for the lower court to consider a yet-undefined ‘remedy,’” said DeMaio in a statement, adding that the remedy could range from a simple monetary fine to overturning part or all of Proposition B.

“If the Appeals Court in any way changes or reverses the voter-approved pension reforms in Prop B,” said DeMaio, “we intend to appeal that violation of the people’s vote back to the Supreme Court.”

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