San Bernardino Police

A measure to set police and firefighter salaries by collective bargaining in San Bernardino, rather than as the average of 10 like-sized cities — a policy that for decades has been enshrined in San Bernardino’s charter and no one else in the state — is a lighting rod in the city. (Staff file photo/The Sun)

By Ryan Hagen, The Sun
Posted: 10/21/14, 7:29 PM PDT | Updated: 56 secs ago

SAN BERNARDINO >> A decades-old provision in a city charter rarely attracts this kind of passion, but then rarely is there a history like the one surrounding Measure Q’s attempt to reform Charter Section 186.

The guarantee offered by Section 186 is, in fact, unique among California cities: a legal requirement that police and firefighters’ salaries be exactly the average of what 10 other California cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000 pay for those positions. Those 10 cities vary by year, but the way they’re selected ensures, in practice, that base pay is the average pay of midsized cities.

But San Bernardino is not an average city.

A struggling Inland Empire city can’t afford “autopilot raises” tied to the much-wealthier cities that represent the state’s average, city leaders and analysts protest. Those calls began long before the city filed for bankruptcy and a committee of citizens chosen by the City Council and mayor decided this year to ask voters to replace that formula with collective bargaining.

But it was also before the city imposed a contract on firefighters in a way union members say demonstrates bad faith, and in recent years it’s taken a number of actions union lawyers say violate existing requirements. In some cases, a court has agreed.

“I wish we could trust the city to bargain the way other cities do,” firefighter Kenneth Konior said recently, “but the politics of at least the last few years make me think we can’t.”

Some of the most prominent voices calling for a “yes” vote are the same ones making the decisions protested against by the fire and — more recently — police unions.

The bottom line, says Mayor Carey Davis, whose signature voters will see on the ballot argument for Measure Q, is that the city can’t fix deep financial problems with its hands tied.

“Firefighters and police make up a huge part of the budget, even now when we’re down 100 officers,” Davis said, referring to the gap between the 350 officers authorized in the 2010-11 budget and 248 this year. “That high pay prevents us from hiring more officers.”

Davis doesn’t have a specific number in mind for what pay should be — it depends on a number of factors, including an exploration of realigning how emergency services are delivered, he says — but whatever is done will still be subject to the same laws that govern other cities.

Bankruptcy protection may modify the situation in the near-term — the bankruptcy judge in Stockton, for example, ruled this month that federal law allows a bankrupt city to treat the California Public Employees’ Retirement System in ways state law would prohibit. But that could also be the case with the city’s charter, said Davis, who defers legal questions to the city attorney.

“What I look at is what will put the city in a stable financial position in 20 years,” Davis said.

Davis walks a fine line when it comes to Measure Q, he says: His opinion is informed by careful study of the city’s finances, performed in order to make him a better mayor, but he doesn’t speak as mayor. He asked that an interview on the subject of Measure Q not be conducted at City Hall, to avoid muddying his roles.

As a candidate, Davis advocated for a committee to study charter reform, with Section 186 the first example he gave of an area that should be addressed. That committee was the first proposal he put on the City Council’s agenda on the day he was sworn in this March.

And the committee formed to support him (as well as City Attorney Gary Saenz and three unsuccessful candidates for City Council) for that election, Residents for a Better San Bernardino, is now the main campaign presence in the push to pass Measure Q and the other change recommended by the charter committee, Measure R.

As of a campaign finance statement for the period of July 1 through Sept. 30 — a period that begins before the City Council voted to put Q and R on the ballot but doesn’t include the major push made in October — the committee had spent $8,249.50 and raised no money.

During that same period, the political action committee for the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters spent $65,531.91, nearly all of it to oppose Measure Q (other expenses included $654 on robo calls to Ward 3 and Ward 7 regarding a budget that ultimately included more than $2 million in cuts to the Fire Department. That committee received more than $58,000 during that period, mostly in member contributions.)

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