PERB: San Diego City Attorney Improperly Bypassed Union

City of San Diego (Office of the City Attorney) (2010) PERB Dec. No. 2103-M (Issued on 3/26/10)

Facts:

This case arises from the pension funding crisis in San Diego. Very briefly, the crisis resulted from a series of poor decisions by City officials and trustees of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System (SDCERS) in the 1990’s. The poor decisions included twice delaying the City’s contributions to the retirement system, increasing future benefits for City employees, and underpricing employee purchases of retirement service credits. The net effect of these decisions was to grossly underfund the retirement system. As a result of the pension funding crisis, state and federal officials initiated civil and criminal investigations into the actions of public officials and others. State and federal prosecutors ultimately filed criminal charges against some of the SDCERS trustees, including the Local 145 president.

In 2004, Michael Aguirre (Aguirre) was elected the City Attorney on a campaign promising to clean up the financial mess facing the City. As part of that vow, Aguirre took aim at the underpricing of retirement credits by SDCERS. Specifically, under the union contract with Local 145, employees were allowed to purchase up to five years of retirement service credit at cost. However, in calculating the price for service credits, SDCERS staff grossly underestimated the true cost of the credits. Aguirre estimated it was a $147 million mistake. After he took office, Aguirre filed a civil action in an attempt to reverse the effects of the underpricing of the service credits. In addition, Aguirre issued a press release which gave rise to this unfair practice charge. The press release Aguirre issued directed employees to a form on the internet that they could submit to voluntarily rescind the prior purchase of service credits. Local 145 argued, among other allegations, that Aguirre’s actions constituted “direct dealing” with employees.

Decision:

While PERB dismissed the other allegations, the Board found that Aguirre’s press release constituted an attempt to bargain directly with employees, and was thus an unfair practice. In its decision, PERB held:

“This action goes beyond correcting the price shortfall and disregards the MOU language that expressly authorizes employee purchases of service credit at a price set by the retirement system. By soliciting employees to rescind their purchase of service credits, made in accordance with the MOU, the City has gone directly to the employees to obtain their waiver of a benefit negotiated by Local 145, based on the City’s subsequent determination that the credits were underpriced to the detriment of the City. Consequently, the city attorney’s direct request to employees to rescind service credit purchases, constituted bypass of the exclusive representative in violation of the MMBA.”

Comments:
  1. This decision drew a dissent from member Dowdin. It was her first dissent as a Board member and only the 3rd dissent in a decision this fiscal year. (Both the other dissents were by member Neuwald. See PERB Decision Nos. 2058 and 2094.) Dowdin argued that merely informing employees of the rescission option did not interfere with the role of the exclusive representative since Aguirre’s goal was not to change the negotiated contract, but to correct a mistake.
  2. I agree. Take, for example, a situation where the contract provides employees with 10 hours of vacation a month. By mistake, an employee receives 30 hours one month. Does the employer have to bargain with the union before it can correct the mistake? I think not. (Arguably, how the time is taken back may be negotiable as an “effect” but the decision itself, in my opinion, is not). In this example, the employer is not changing the terms and conditions of employment; namely, an employee’s entitlement to 10 hours of vacation a month. The employer is merely insisting on that condition by correcting a mistake.
  3. In addition, I thought the majority too easily dismissed Aguirre’s argument that he was acting in his capacity as the City Attorney as opposed to acting in the role of the employer. As an illustration, let’s say in a prosecution for workers’ compensation fraud a District Attorney’s Office seeks restitution from the defendant. Let’s say the defendant happens to be an employee of the county. Does that fact mean that the DA must bargain with the union during this criminal proceeding in order to ask for the money back? Again, I think not. In this example, the DA is acting in his official capacity as opposed to an employer for purposes of collective bargaining. Granted, the situation in this case is slightly different, since this was not a criminal proceeding and Aguirre’s role as City Attorney versus employer is much more blurred.  However, I thought the argument that Aguirre was acting in his capacity to enforce city laws was persuasive. Certainly, as I read the facts, it was not Aguirre’s intent to bargain with employees in order to change a contractual provision. He was merely attempting to correct a mistake; a mistake that appeared to be undisputed.
  4. Given how much litigation has already occurred in San Diego on this issue, I wouldn’t be surprised if this case is appealed. So it’s not over yet.
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