George Hostetter, 03/29/12
The Fresno City Council on Thursday brushed aside a threatened legal challenge by the police union and approved a blueprint that promises to restore the city’s financial health.
The 10-year blueprint — called the “Fiscal Sustainability Policy” — was proposed by Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who has said the city faces continuing deficits and service reductions unless it revamps how it does business.
The vote was 5-2, with Council Members Sal Quintero and Blong Xiong voting no.
Quintero said debate on the policy should be postponed until the upcoming budget hearings.
Council Member Oliver Baines said the policy is prudent and will provide budget guidelines for this and future councils.
The council’s vote was a victory for Swearengin, who unveiled the proposal March 12 but since then has faced considerable skepticism from union leaders.
The council’s approval “is a critical step that recognizes the severe financial challenges we’re facing and the difficult yet necessary steps we need to take to address them,” Swearengin said in a written statement. “This Policy recognizes that our employees and labor organizations must be a part of any long-term fiscal solution.”
Now comes the hard part — turning words on paper into action that helps City Hall close a projected $15 million general fund budget gap next year and as much as $66 million of red ink within five years.
The Fiscal Sustainability Policy is long and complex. But at its core is a plea to unions for immediate pay concessions to help the city meet the current crisis and a vow to permanently reform how employees are compensated to help meet the long-term challenge.
And as everyone in the council chamber realized, the first part of that equation means city officials trying to work out a voluntary deal with a police union whose contract runs through mid-2015.
The Fresno Police Officers Association has decades of experience in such battles. This was again made clear on March 22 when the council held a workshop on Swearengin’s policy. Rocky Lucia, a lawyer with a firm representing the FPOA, told the council his client is worried the mayor’s policy could violate laws requiring good-faith bargaining.
In essence, Lucia wondered how the city could sit down at the negotiating table with an allegedly open mind when it had already embraced a legislative act that seems to preclude certain options such as long-term contracts.
If that warning wasn’t clear enough, Lucia’s firm on Wednesday sent a letter to City Manager Mark Scott that all but demanded city officials remove the Fiscal Sustainability Policy from Thursday’s council agenda.
If the firm failed to receive word by the end of Wednesday’s working day that the item had been pulled, the letter stated, “the FPOA will assume that the City has willfully decided to ignore its legal obligation to meet and confer, and will commence the necessary legal action.”
“While the FPOA would prefer to work collaboratively with the City, it is not willing to sit idly while the City irresponsibly disregards its obligations under the law.”
City Attorney James Sanchez on Thursday read part of the letter to the council, then advised council members that they could vote to hold an emergency closed-door meeting to discuss what obviously is a possible lawsuit. The council quickly voted to meet in private. About an hour later, council members emerged and wasted no time sending a message to FPOA — they began debating the merits of the mayor’s policy and didn’t even debate whether to pull the issue from the agenda.
Scott and Council Member Andreas Borgeas offered a handful of tweaks to the policy that appeared aimed at fortifying the city’s legal standing should the issue end up in court. The changes were approved in the 5-2 vote.
With the Fiscal Sustainability Policy now an official part of City Hall’s DNA, attention turns to the FPOA and budget hearings that could start in May.
FPOA President Jacky Parks said late Thursday afternoon that the union’s board will meet next week to consider its next step. Parks said that could include the legal action mentioned in its lawyer’s letter.
Parks said he and Scott have not talked recently.