San Diego to appeal costly pension ruling to U.S. Supreme Court

SAN DIEGO – San Diego will make one last legal attempt to keep the city’s six-year-old pension cutbacks in place by filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment free speech grounds, it was reported Friday.

The City Council voted 8-1 in a session closed to the public this week to file the federal appeal, which could overturn a state Supreme Court ruling in August that the pension cuts were not legally placed on the ballot in 2012, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

That ruling could force San Diego to pay millions in compensation to roughly 4,000 employees hired since voters approved the measure, according to the Union-Tribune.

Proposition B, initially approved by voters in 2012, eliminated guaranteed pensions for new city employees, except police officers, and replaced those benefits with 401(k)-style retirement plans.

In 2015, one of the city’s largest public sector unions challenged the benefit system. The Public Employee Relations Board ruled with the union, but the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the decision in April 2017.

The state Supreme Court ruled in August that although it was a citizens’ initiative, Sanders’ support of Proposition B as policy warranted engagement with the unions under the Meyers-Milas-Brown Act, which gave city and county employees the right to collective bargaining in 1968.

Sanders had previously said he supported the measure as a private citizen, not a public employee. However, the state Supreme Court ruled that Sanders did use the power of his office to push the initiative.

Attorneys for the city will argue that Sanders’ vocal support of the measure is protected speech and that it’s a violation of his First Amendment rights for the state court to rule that such speech comes with an obligation to negotiate with unions, the Union-Tribune reported.

That’s what the city argued last month in a 25-page brief requesting the state Supreme Court re-open the case, a request that the court officially denied on Wednesday, according to the Union-Tribune.

“When elected officials, such as the city’s mayor, assume office, they do not relinquish their First Amendment rights to address the merits of pending ballot measures or to even propose and draft them,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Travis Phelps wrote in the decision.

“The First Amendment protects the speech rights of elected officials and private citizens equally,” Phelps wrote. “Therefore, it is irrelevant whether Mayor Sanders was speaking as a private citizen or as the city’s mayor.”