A judge on Tuesday refused to issue a temporary restraining order that could have resulted in a pension reform initiative being removed from the June ballot.
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In one of two lawsuits challenging the ballot measure, Judge William Dato rejected the TRO request by the state Public Employment Relations Board, which contended the initiative should be disqualified because city leaders engaged in unfair labor practices.
Last week, the agency known as PERB found that the city failed to negotiate the provisions of the ballot measure with its unions.
City officials are legally required to meet and confer with unions on measures they place before voters, but that mandate does not extend to initiatives begun by private citizens and groups.
The pension reform measure is backed by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and, while Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Carl DeMaio are among its leading supporters, both claimed they were acting as private residents.
City union leaders disagreed and filed a complaint with the PERB, which resulted in the lawsuit.
According to the judge, the invalidity of the measure has to "be clear beyond a doubt," which was not the case in this instance.
He said there was no compelling reason to determine the validity before the election. The issue can be dealt with following the election, Dato ruled.
Sanders said, "The public deserves the right to decide this matter, and I'm glad the courts will allow this initiative to proceed."
He said that if passed by voters, it will be copied by other cities.
Under the initiative, most new San Diego city employees would receive 401(k) plans instead of being enrolled in the debt-ridden pension system.
Workers would also have only their base compensation figured into their eventual retirement pay for a five-year period.
Proponents say the changes would save the city at least $1.2 billion through 2040, but opponents contend it will leave employees without a viable safety net and actually cost more money in the first few years.
Michael Zucchet, who heads the Municipal Employees Association, told reporters after the hearing that "at the end of the day, the initiative is an illegal initiative and the city's not going to be able to implement it."
AFSCME Local 127 president Joan Raymond told reporters, "We already achieved pension reform in 2009 with sacrifices from our workers. You cannot separate Jerry Sanders from the office of mayor and the idea that he was acting as a private citizen is ludicrous."
San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith argued the point, saying, "When it comes to a citizens' initiative, it belongs to the 116,000 who signed for it. For hundreds of years, governors and mayors have said, 'I'm going directly to the people. PERB came up with this loony idea that before you go to the people you go to the labor unions and negotiate whether that's okay."
The other lawsuit, filed by mayoral candidate Hud Collins, claims the initiative amounts to a large-scale revision to the City Charter, not an amendment. The City Charter requires a revision to be introduced by the City Council or a charter review commission, not a private ballot initiative.
A ruling on his lawsuit is also expected this week.
"We anticipated early on this would be challenged before the elections and after the election," said T.J. Zane, one of the proponents of the initiative. "There's no end to what governmental unions will throw at this initiative to try to defeat it
everything but the kitchen sink [and] everything that sticks."
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