SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - In a win for public employee unions, the California Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a 2012 ballot measure in San Diego that cut retirement benefits for city workers.
The court ruled unanimously that then-San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders should have met with a union for city workers before the city placed the measure before voters. The measure approved by voters imposed a six-year freeze on pay levels used to determine pension benefits unless a two-thirds majority of the City Council voted to override it. It also put new hires, except for police officers, into 401(k)-style plans.
The court did not invalidate the San Diego ballot measure, but sent the case back to a lower court.
State law requires government officials to confer in good faith with public employee unions about wages and other terms of employment. San Diego argued that the pension measure was sponsored by local residents, so it was exempt from the state requirement.
But the Supreme Court said Sanders used the powers and resources of his office to play a major role in promoting the measure.
"Under the facts presented here, Sanders pursued pension reform as a matter of policy while acting as the city's chief executive officer," Associate Justice Leondra Kruger wrote for the court. "As a 'strong mayor' and the city's designated bargaining agent, he was required to meet and confer with employee representatives in this process."
Gerry Braun, chief of staff for the San Diego city attorney, said the office was reviewing the ruling.
The decision hampers efforts to pursue changes to government pensions by ballot initiative, which can be the only way to achieve reform because unions control the "political levers" of city government, said Chuck Reed, the former mayor of San Jose who has warned about the dangers of unfunded pension debt. He backed a pension measure that passed in San Jose in 2012 that cut benefits for new hires.
Reed said he met with union leaders dozens of times about his pension proposal, so Thursday's ruling would not have posed a threat to that measure. But he said the ruling will "make it more difficult for individual councilmembers or individual mayors to help the citizens' initiatives."
The justices overturned a lower court ruling that could have further diminished the requirement that cities and counties meet with unions before cutting the benefits of government workers, said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, which challenged the ballot measure.
"You do have to talk to employees before you do them dirty," he said.
The Supreme Court signaled it was ruling narrowly, noting that the "line between official action and private activities undertaken by public officials may be less clear in other circumstances."