SB City Council Gives Voters Two Charter Change Options On November Ballo

(August 12)  The San Bernardino City Council last week narrowly approved placing a city charter-altering measure on the November ballot.
San Bernardino is a charter city as opposed to a general law city. Its charter and amendments thereto, per state law, are approved by the city’s voters. One of the provisions put into the charter by means of a citywide vote over a decade ago – known as Section 186 – requires that the city’s public safety employees – firefighters and police officers – be paid on a scale equal to the average pay of police officers and firefighters in ten similarly-sized California cities.
San Bernardino has been beset with financial difficulties that culminated in the city’s filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012. Former mayor Patrick Morris, whose eight years in office ended earlier this year, for the last several years of his tenure  maintained that a major factor in the city’s fiscal deterioration has been excessive salaries and benefits provided to city employees and retirees. Carey Davis, an accountant by profession and a political ally to Morris, succeeded Morris in March after defeating Wendy McCammack, a former councilwoman who had long championed generous pay increases for municipal safety employees.
Section 186 effectively locks in salaries for San Bernardino’s public safety employees that are at par with or greater than those salaries received by their counterparts in ten California cities. San Bernardino, the county seat and the largest city in the county, has a population of 210,000. Yearly, city officials and police and fire union heads start with a list of California cities with populations between 150,000 and 250,000. In turns, each removes a city from that list until ten remain. Salaries are then computated upon the average pay to that particular group – firefighters or fire department management or policeman or police management – in the remaining ten cities.
Over the last several years, San Bernardino has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn that has gripped the nation, state and region. Despite the city’s 2012 filing for bankruptcy protection, it has continued to give firefighters and police officers raises in keeping with the provisions of Section 186 of the city charter. During Morris’s rein as mayor, a schism had developed on the council over the continuation of what some characterized as too generous salaries and benefits to city public safety employees. Morris and several of his allies pushed for concessions from the police and fire unions on salaries and benefits. One Morris ally in particular, former 3rd Ward councilman Tobin Brinker, was outspoken about the need to reduce city payroll costs and he championed a city employee pension reduction measure that earned him the enmity of both the police and fire unions.  He was targeted by those unions in the 2011 election and was defeated by John Valdivia, who upon election joined with the council coalition then led by councilwoman McCammack, which sought to sustain police and fire department pay at the established levels.
As one of his first acts in office, Davis called for the creation of a municipal commission to consider charter changes, suggesting that the requirement that police and fire officers be provided with raises based on salaries given to their counterparts in cities free of the financial challenges San Bernardino faces should be done away with. That move failed when it was pointed out that a municipal commission cannot be formed without prior voter approval. The proposal was adjusted to allow the creation of a citizens committee to review the city charter.
On March 17, the city council passed a resolution that was opposed by Valdivia which called for the creation of the citizens’ charter review committee. The resolution delineated that each of the council’s seven members would choose one registered voter from their respective wards to serve on the committee and that Davis would get two appointments to the panel, including one culled from the city’s business community.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Virginia Marquez selected Casey Daily for the committee; Ward 2 Councilman Benito Barrios  chose Dennis Baxter; Ward 3 Councilman John Valdivia appointed Gary Walbourne;  Ward 4 Councilman Fred Shorett selected Hillel Cohn; Ward 5 Councilman Henry Nickel chose Michael Craft; Ward 6 Councilman Rikke Van Johnson brought in Hardy Brown; and Ward 7 Councilman James Mulvill tapped Philip Savage.  Davis selected Thomas Pierce and Dan Carlone.
In May, the panel voted 7-2, with Walbourne and Craft dissenting, to make a non-binding recommendation to the city council that it use its authority to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to repeal Section 186 and instead adjust salaries through the collective bargaining process.
In the current fiscal year, police department and fire department operations represent 68 percent of the spending out of the city’s general fund. Salaries make up the lion’s share of those departments’ operating budgets.
With the city’s bankruptcy filing, there was outrage in some quarters of the city over the continuation in the escalation of public safety employee pay. Morris became an outspoken advocate of pay and pension reform and supported Davis against McCammack in last year’s mayoral race, which resulted in a runoff between the two in which Davis prevailed earlier this year.
At a special meeting of the city council on August 7, the city council voted 4-3 with councilmen John Valdivia, Henry Nickel and Benito Barrios dissenting, to place two measures on the November ballot that will alter the municipal charter and, in theory, reduce costs. The first of those measures, if approved, would repeal Section 186. The second measure would repeal Charter Section 254, which requires that fired employees who are appealing their terminations to the civil service commission continue to be paid until the commission makes a decision on whether or not to reinstate the employee.
According to the resolution voted upon and approved by the council on August 7, “It is proposed that Sections 186 and 254 of the charter of the city of San Bernardino be amended by replacing the current language to read in their entirety as follows: Section 186. Salaries. The safety of the people in the city is a highest priority of its government. Compensation of police, fire and emergency safety personnel shall be set by resolution of the mayor and common council after collective bargaining as appropriate under applicable law, as it does for other city employees.  Section 254. Discharge or reduction of compensation. No employee in the classified service shall be suspended, discharged or reduced in classification for disciplinary reasons until the employee has been presented with the reasons for such action specifically stated in writing. The reason for such discharge or reduction and any reply thereto by the employee, shall be filed in writing with the civil service board.”
Efforts to dissuade the council from putting the measures on the ballot included charges that the first measure was intended to lower safety employees salaries in one of the most dangerous and crime infested cities in the state, would drive qualified police officers and firefighters to seek employment elsewhere, and was a prelude to the city outsourcing the fire department to the county fire department and paramedic service to a private provider American Medical Response.
Councilman Rikki Van Johnson said the charter sections 186 and 254 were vestiges of a bygone era that were hurting the city and its residents and he insisted the charter had to be brought “into the 21st century.”
Within several days, the fire and police unions created a website, which was intended to serve as a rallying niche against the charter amendments. decried San Bernardino as “the worst run city in America,” going on to assert “San Bernardino SB deserves smarter budget choices.” “Reducing the number of police officers and closing neighborhood fire stations will not make San Bernardino safer or more prosperous,” according to the website
Those assertions on the website were countered by city officials pointing out that the charter changes would free up money to allow the city to maintain or even increase the city’s current level of police staffing and keep fire stations operating.

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