Firefighters Sue SB Over Pay And Manpower Reductions

SAN BERNARDINO—(April 14) San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters, the bargaining unit representing San Bernardino’s firefighters, filed a pair of lawsuits on April 9 and April 10, asserting the city has run afoul of the municipal charter in imposing rampdowns on firefighter pay and benefits.
In San Bernardino, the pay level of the city’s safety employees – its police officers and firefighters – is controlled by a provision – known as Section 186 – put  into the municipal charter by means of a citywide vote in 1939. Section 186 requires that policemen and firemen be paid on a scale equal to the average pay of police officers and firefighters in ten similarly-sized California cities.
But San Bernardino has been on a steady financial decline for more than two decades and in 2012 nearly ten straight years of deficit spending came home to roost when the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Almost three years later, the city has yet to fully formulate its financial recovery and bankruptcy exit plan.
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 213,708. 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.
Former mayor Patrick Morris, whose eight years in office ended last 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.
The Morris-led council, over the strenuous objection of councilman John Valdivia, who came into office as the result of heavy police department union backing, has explored overcoming the requirements that San Bernardino maintain police officer and firefighter pay levels  remain on a par with California cities that are not struggling with the same financial challenges it is.
In September 2014, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury, who is overseeing San Bernardino’s bankruptcy petition, ruled that the city could reject its existing contract with its firefighters. Jury’s finding was limited in scope, and it did not, per se, granting the city license to impose a contract on the firefighters unilaterally, but suggested that some form of traditional collective bargaining could be carried out.
In October, a divided city council voted 4-3, with mayor Carey Davis, Virginia Marquez, councilmen Jim Mulvihill and Shorett in favor and Valdivia and councilmen Benito Barrios and Henry Nickel opposed, to alter the city’s pension plan for its firefighters and have the fire department to shutter one of its fire stations and the implementation of “constant staffing,” which involves a strategy by which the department schedules a minimum number of staffed fire engines or paramedic units at all times and apportions those crews by number to correspond with peak usage periods in an effort to reduce manpower demands and head off excessive overtime. The firefighters at that time objected to the move, in particular to imposing the pension changes, and its union representatives threatened to sue the city over the issue.
Last week the firefighters union came through on that threat, asserting city officials are violating San Bernardino’s charter in an ongoing pay dispute.
In a press release,  San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters President Jeff English said the city’s action in defiance of Charter Section 186 is illegal and “slap in the face” to residents who voted against Measure Q, a city council sponsored initiative aimed at altering Section 186, which was placed on the ballot in November. Measure Q, which was stridently opposed by the police and fire unions who ran a well-funded campaign against it, failed.  “We want to stop these violations and ensure that city leaders follow the laws that they have pledged to uphold,” said English.
The suits were filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Riverside. They petition for the vacation of the changes voted in by the city in October.
The suits followed by three and four days action by the San Bernardino City Council on April 6 to approve, again with Valdivia dissenting,  a “good governance” agreement which stipulates that the council seek to expeditiously “produce a confirmable plan of adjustment for council approval by May 30, 2015” so the city can make an exit from bankruptcy. The good governance dictum implies that elements of the city’s charter may need to be ignored, suspended or altered to achieve those goals.

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