- Terelle Jerricks
Kevin Walker, Long Beach Reporter
The Long Beach City Council voted to move ahead with plans cap employee compensation at a contentious Sept. 18 meeting.
Council members voted 6-2, with District 3 Councilman Gary Delong absent, to request that City Attorney Robert Shannon draft a potential ballot measure that would rollback compensation for non-public safety city workers to 2010 levels for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
The nature of the compensation rollback has yet to be determined. However, in a Memo released this past week District 7 Councilman James Johnson indicated that savings through pension cuts, reduced skill pay and salary changes were all possibilities.
The move by Johnson, who is the lead sponsor of the proposal, sharply divided the nine council members and drew the ire of the International Association of Aerospace and Machinist Workers that represents the 3,600 city workers–a constituency that will be most affected by the compensation cuts.
District 8 Councilman Al Austin expressed serious reservations about the proposal in an interview before the Sept. 18 meeting.
“I think it’s disappointing that he [Johnson] feels he has to go that route and abandon the collective bargaining process. Based on my experience, it’s unprecedented and I’m not even sure about the legality of it,” Austin said.
City Attorney Shannon echoed those concerns, as did several other Council members at the meeting, warning that any ballot initiative attempting to circumvent the collective bargaining process between public agencies and their employees may be a violation of the Meyer-Milias-Brown Act. The California statute regulates contract negotiations between public employers and employee unions and includes a process known as “meet and confer” where both parties must share information and respond to each others questions in an open and timely manner.
“I want to emphasize…that before any final action all the requirements of Meyers-Milias-Brown [Act] have to be complied with … before you can take any final action to put this matter on the ballot,” Shannon said.
Council members critical of the proposal also questioned the timing of its release and the motives of its sponsors, citing the possibility of a drawn out meet and confer period and the fact that the Machinists union contract is up for negotiation in 2013.
“The meet and confer process could actually take several months, considering the fact that we are less than a year from the expiration of the city employee contract it just kind of seems like political grandstanding at this point. I don’t think this is a healthy path to go down,” Austin said.
This sentiment was passionately reiterated by District 5 Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske, who excoriated the sponsors of the proposed recommendation for scapegoating city employees, political posturing and backroom dealing.
“We approved the very contract, all you [sponsors] now want to roll back. We had the projections. We all sat here and watched the budget. There was no veto of this,” Schipske said. “We knew what the budget figures were. And to now…throw this back and have the public vote on these peoples salaries when we didn’t have the guts and spine to take care of it in the way we needed to? I just think is very disingenuous.”
Schipske proposed substitute motion during the meeting mandating the city manager to return to the bargaining table with the Machinists union immediately. The motion was supported by Austin and District 9 Councilman Steven Neal, but was defeated 5-3.
District 2 Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, who requested her name be attached to the recommendation as a co-sponsor at the opening of discussion, argued that pension reform was a financial necessity to save essential city services and avoid layoffs of city employees, a large contingent of whom were present at the meeting.
“Essential services will go away, which means many of your jobs will go away. We’re asking you to be our adult ally,” Lowenthal said, trying to steer the discussion away from Schipske’s impassioned remarks.
This was followed by comments from Mayor Bob Foster, who declared his commitment to the compensation rollback and his unwillingness to bring any revenue raising initiative to a vote until an agreement on pension reform was reached.
“I am not…going to go to the voters for additional revenue until we’ve achieved the reforms that we have to achieve,” said Foster. “You can call me whatever names you want, but I will not be deterred. It needs to get done.”
All the council members expressed disappointment that an agreement between the city and the Machinists union wasn’t reached in August. The union rejected a contract that would have raised its members pension obligations and reduced wage increases without explicit protection from layoffs or clear information about how the $3.9 million in estimated savings to the city’s general fund would have been used.
When commenting on what negotiating with the city was like, president of the Machinists Union Local 1930 Dan Gonzalez, had this to say:
“It seems to us that the sentiment has been that if you don’t give us what we want, then we’re going to lay off and you’re going to pay. If you do give us what you want, we will lay you off but we’ll feel bad about it.”