Saturday, August 4, 2018

California Supreme Court Rules San Diego Violated MMBA by Refusing to Bargain Over Pension Initiative

In a severe setback to a recent scheme to unilaterally erode public pensions, on Thursday the California Supreme Court held that the city of San Diego was required to meet-and-confer with unions over a mayoral sponsored citizen initiative that eliminated defined benefit pensions for new municipal employees. 

In Boling v. Public Employment Relations Board, the high court evaluated whether a ballot initiative transferring newly hired city workers to a 401(k)-style retirement savings plan, in lieu of a traditional pension plan, required the city to meet-and-confer with various unions.  Since 1984 our Supreme Court has held that a charter amendment proposed by the governing body of a public agency is subject to the MMBA's bargaining requirements prior to its submission to the voters if it adversely impact compensation or benefits. (People ex rel. Seal Beach Police Officers Assn. v City of Seal Beach).  Mayor Sanders's sought to evade Seal Beach through the artifice of spearheading a voter initiative.  Until this week, the Supreme Court had not determined whether voter initiatives are subject to meet and confer;    

This seminal case involved Proposition B, a ballot measure placed on the June 2012 ballot by a group called San Diegans for Pension Reform to amend the San Diego city charter to provide 401(k)-style retirement benefits instead of defined benefit pensions to newly hired employees.  However, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was instrumental with the measure passing. The Mayor proposed the initiative in November 2010 and even spoke of his support for it at his State of the City address on January 2011. In fact, Mayor Sanders met with community groups but refused to meet with unions representing municipal employees, deputy city attorneys, and firefighters. The initiative passed with 65.81 percent of the vote.

After Proposition B passed, union members filed suit alleging that Mayor Sanders improperly placed the initiative on the ballot without first bargaining with affected unions as required under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (“MMBA”). In response, the City argued that the Mayors’ support was “merely that of a private citizen.”

In rejecting the City’s argument, the California Supreme Court ruled that: “allowing public officials to purposefully evade the meet-and-confer requirements [of MMBA] by officially sponsoring a citizens’ initiative would seriously undermine the policies served by the statute: fostering full communication between public employers and employees, as well as improving personnel management and employer-employee relations.”  The Supreme Court remanded the case to lower courts to determine the appropriate remedy.

Here, the San Diego Mayor tried to have it both ways acting on behalf on the City to push an initiative to divert pension obligations to other spending priorities, while claiming to do so as a private citizen in order to avoid long-standing bargaining requirements.  Had the Court ruled otherwise, public officials would have been incentivized to circumvent their obligation to negotiate over pension initiatives through the contrivance of acting as a private citizen while exploiting the advantages of their elected office.