Local News

Wednesday, Feb 10 2010 07:48 PM

Pension dispute on hold, but not for long

BY GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writer gwenner@bakersfield.com

Bakersfield's great pension debate is far from over -- despite the fact that two city councilmen Wednesday withdrew their proposals for benefit-cutting ballot measures meant for June's primary election.

The matter could return in time for the November election if the city doesn't get desired concessions by summer, said Zack Scrivner, the councilmember who spearheaded the ballot proposition effort.

Wednesday afternoon's special meeting had been slated so the council could craft measures that would allow Bakersfield residents to vote on whether to reduce retirement benefits for newly hired city workers. Scrivner also wanted voter approval for any future pension increases. The council would have needed to approve all final wording at its Feb. 17 meeting in order to make the June election.

But after emerging from a two-hour closed session that included discussion with a labor negotiator, Scrivner told attendees legal risks the city would be exposed to prompted him to slow down the process.

"The most important thing is not to achieve a political victory," Scrivner said after the meeting. "The important thing is to be able to implement policy that is legally defensible."

Scrivner's proposal has added fuel to fires already burning among the city's three unions -- especially police and fire divisions, where staffers have been working without contracts since June 2007 and March 2008, respectively.

"We can't negotiate -- we're at impasse," said Todd Dickson after the meeting. Dickson is the secretary of the Bakersfield Police Officers Association, which represents about 345 sworn officers.

"We're hopelessly deadlocked," he said. "We spent three years at the bargaining table."

"Impasse" refers to a stalemate in negotiations after good-faith bargaining efforts fail. A judge last month confirmed the police union's assertion negotiations with the city are at impasse.

The judge also ruled the city must now take the next step dictated by Bakersfield's municipal code: hold a city council hearing on the matter.

That hearing hasn't yet been scheduled and appears to be one of the legal speed bumps that prompted Scrivner to postpone any ballot measures until all such t's are crossed.

Chuck Waide, director of SEIU Local 521, which represents about 660 blue- and white-collar city employees, said after the meeting the unit won't negotiate as long as potential ballot measures are on the table.

Waide wrote a letter to city officials last week saying the 521, which has historically been willing to bargain with the city, had been advised by its lawyers not to open its contract, which runs through 2011.

"To me, this is purely political," Waide said of the ballot proposals. "It's about running for higher office."

Scrivner is running for county supervisor. Councilmember David Couch, who added his own ballot measure ideas to the mix, is considering a run for state Assembly. Couch also rescinded his proposals Wednesday.

Larger legal issues loom over Scrivner's take-it-to-the-people approach.

Scrivner and city attorneys say a ballot measure, done correctly, will hold up to a court challenge.

Unions disagree.

"Bypassing collective bargaining? It's illegal," said Dickson, the police union secretary.

Scrivner is now looking at a June deadline to get propositions on the November ballot.

In the meantime, the council will have to hold a hearing on the police union deadlock.

That's bound to be dicey as well. The city believes it can unilaterally impose contract conditions at the hearing, with the hitch being those unilateral conditions can only hold for six to 12 months.

The police union disagrees. It says the council will have to choose either the city's or the union's last offers made before negotiations collapsed.

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