SAN DIEGO — The California Supreme Court has shown an interest in examining the effort to invalidate San Diego’s voter-approved pension reform initiative, and if the court takes up the case, it could cut out weeks — if not years — of legal battles.

Proponents of the measure unsuccessfully pushed for the 4th District Court of Appeals to consolidate cases against it as well as skip hearings by a state board and asked the Supreme Court to look at the legal issues surrounding the initiative.

Employee unions have said city leaders violated state law by helping craft Proposition B as a citizen’s initiative, sidestepping the city’s legal obligation to negotiate with labor over benefit changes. Proposition B calls for replacing pensions with 401(k)-style plans for most new city hires and proposes a five-year freeze on the pensionable pay of current employees. Two-thirds of voters approved the measure June 5.

Supporters of the initiative saw the Supreme Court’s request for additional information this week as a positive sign after labor scored two separate legal victories against the measure earlier this month.

The legal issues began in February when an initial review by the state Public Employees Relation Board found there was “reasonable cause” to believe the law may have been broken. The board sought a court injunction to block the measure from appearing on the June ballot, but it was denied. The city was able to successfully delay the PERB administrative hearings until after the public vote.

On June 19, the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal ruled the “trial court erred” by delaying the PERB proceedings and that they should proceed. The next hearing is scheduled for July 17.

A separate ruling from the same appellate court a week earlier denied City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s request to consolidate the legal challenges to Proposition B, bypass the PERB hearing and rule on the issue.

Goldsmith said the Supreme Court’s request for more information is often a prelude to it hearing the matter directly. He said that could save a significant amount of time by keeping the legal battles out of lower courts and board hearings.

Goldsmith said he believes the larger issue at hand is whether citizen’s initiatives will be deemed to supersede the usual contract negotiation laws cities and unions must abide by.

“How do you give the 116,000 people who signed the initiative the right to negotiate? The fact the mayor supported it doesn’t change that it was a citizen’s initiative,” he said. “If the involvement of government officials can render a citizen initiative not a citizen initiative, then the people are losing their constitutional right.”

Michael Zucchet, the head of the Municipal Employees Association, which filed the initial PERB complaint, said he does not think the city and the proponents of Proposition B have a chance of skipping over the board hearings.

“It’s not even something in the realm of possibility at the moment,” he said.

Zucchet said the point of the hearings is to gather data, which is a crucial step before any court hears a case.

The four labor unions and PERB were required to provide information to the court by July 3, with the city giving a response back by July 10. Goldsmith said it is likely the court will determine whether to take or reject the case before the PERB hearing scheduled a week later.


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