I’ve been following with interest a battle over a minimum staffing initiative in the City of Alameda (City). In January of this year, the City began engine company “brownouts” because of the budget crisis. In response, the firefighters’ union began circulating a petition for a local ballot measure that would mandate a minimum staffing level of 27 firefighters per shift. At the time, the City had 24 firefighters per shift.
In March, while the petition was still circulating, the City took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against the measure’s backers. The City argued that the measure constituted “an improper exercise of the initiative power pursuant to Article II, Section 8, of the California Constitution and the City Charter” and requested that the court relieve the City Clerk from having to validate and tabulate any signatures that were gathered. While the lawsuit was still pending, the firefighters were able to gather signatures from about 25% of the electorate by June, more than enough to qualify the measure. The City then had no choice but to schedule the measure for a vote.
According to news articles, the big debate was whether the measure should be put on the ballot in November 2009, at a substantial cost to the City since it would be a stand alone matter on the ballot, or some later time. At its August 3, 2009 meeting, the City Council voted to put the measure on the ballot in November 2011—the latest it could do so. The City Council also voted to drop its lawsuit.
At first blush, it seems like a clever move by the City Council—talk about putting a measure on ice! However, if the economy improves substantially by November 2011, it might actually be harder to defeat the measure. Everyone knows that the public likes to support public safety and if there is plenty of money, people are going to be inclined to vote for anything that makes them feel safer. Had the measure been put on the ballot this year or even June 2010, given the current economic climate, the additional cost to the City from the minimum staffing measure (estimated at $4 million/year by City staff) measure might have doomed it.