Can the city’s attorneys find a way to settle pending lawsuits against the city of San Diego, its retirement system and labor unions?
City leaders are suggesting a mediation process they hope will stabilize the city's huge pension costs, and give employees more job security.
There are about ten lawsuits pending in trial or appellate courts over pension-related issues, according to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.
He says it's high time that lawyers for the city, retirement trustees and six municipal workers' groups meet out of court to reach a 'global settlement.'
"I'm asking for a response by the end of this month -- just to participate, that's all," Goldsmith told reporters Friday at a City Hall news conference. "Not to say yes or no on any substantive issue, just to participate. Do you want to give it a good-faith try?"
That may be a lot to ask, given the polarized atmosphere that's long clouded relations between the city and its public safety personnel, clerical and blue-collar workers' unions.
"We need to end the pension wars, the lawsuits and divisiveness," said Councilman Kevin Faulconer. "And this (mediation offer) is exactly what this type of 'global settlement’ can achieve."
Meantime, San Diego's $2 billion pension deficit is eating up more and of the city's annual budget -- $229 million in the current fiscal year. And while a lower growth rate last year may free up $20 million to restore browned-out fire engine companies and cushion other proposed cuts next fiscal year, the city is looking to re-set its salary and retirement schemes to keep its budget out of the red on a long-term basis.
Goldsmith says there are legal grounds for the city to freeze salary levels and disregard bonus pay as benchmarks for retirement formulas as part of a strategy to rein in the pension deficit.
"By reforming pension benefits and getting out of the litigation mess, both sides are in, we can save money," Councilman Carl DeMaio said in an interview following the news conference. "That means we can save services, and for labor unions, you can save jobs. Its a win, win, win."
But early indications are, the unions are in no hurry to settle.
"It appears to be politics by the city attorney to further advance his political ambition," said Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn., in a statement issued by the union's attorney. "The SDPOA does not view today's press conference as a good faith offer to resolve our differences."
"It's unfortunate Mayor Sanders and Jan Goldmsith decided to take a page out of (former city attorney) Mike Aguirre's playbook when they announced their proposed settlement of pension issues before they even met with employees whose major sacrifices they seek," said Lorena Gonzalez, president of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, in a separate statement.
DeMaio warned if the unions do not cooperate, he plans to take pension reforms to the voters by way of the next city election ballot.
"The ballot is in (the unions') court," he said. "But if they won't join us in taking this step together, the citizens of San Diego have to recapture their city government."