Politics Report: The Woman Who Torpedoed Proposition B

Former Lincoln Club President T.J. Zane celebrates alongside supporters of the Proposition B campaign. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

When the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that San Diego acted illegally when its mayor championed a pension reform ballot measure in 2012, nobody was more vindicated than Ann Smith.

Smith is the longtime lawyer for the Municipal Employees Association, the largest city employee union. In 2012, she sent the city letter after letter asking it to sit down and talk about the pension reform ballot measure that was coming together.

Ann Smith / Photo courtesy of Smith Steiner Vanderpool

The city never did. And the state Supreme Court just ruled that was a violation of the Miles Milias Brown Act.

Smith was the one who had this insight six years ago. She had won at the Public Employment Relations Board, a quasi judicial agency set up to handle these disputes, but proponents of the measure sued PERB, and that’s the case that made it to the Supreme Court.

Before the Supreme Court ruling, though, the Court of Appeal had ruled that the city had no obligation to meet and confer with unions to pursue changes to the employment conditions. It was a remarkable ruling. The city and defenders of the pension reform measure hadn’t even made that argument — it was well established that to make any changes to workers’ conditions and compensation, you had to meet and confer. The city does it all the time. The argument from the city and defenders of the initiative was just that they didn’t have to do it for a citizen’s initiative.

And they said the mayor’s involvement in it was immaterial — he could do what he wanted.

To Smith, the Court of Appeal ruling was terrifying. It would have upended labor law across the state and eviscerated the requirement to meet and confer.

We called Smith. Here’s an edited version of part of our exchange.

You must be pleased.

I am so gratified that the screwed-up politics of San Diego didn’t end up creating bad law or precedent for others around the state. It would have taken our bad outcome and spread it around as a new version of how the Miles Milias Brown Act is supposed to work.

I’m prepared to lose if I can understand why and have a judge give us a reason — even if it’s stretched or strained. They gave us no explanation of this new interpretation. When that came out, it was like taking the nightmare violation of the law that occurred here in San Diego and declaring it to be lawful and spreading it around the state.

You knew before the measure even passed that this was a major mistake on their part.

I did. That’s why I kept sending letters. The city had an affirmative duty to come forward with negotiations. We had been bargaining over pension reform for years. I stood next to Mayor [Jerry] Sanders and various Council members in 2008 and announced pension reform. We found proper compromise. Then in late 2010 the mayor decides he wants to do more, needs to do more.

And he never even contacts us. Never asks to meet, never asks to see if any of the reforms would have any traction with us. That’s what was so personally frustrating for me. Until then, we were helping shape appropriate paths of reform through collective bargaining.

What happens now?

I think the Court of Appeal will invalidate the measure for all the employee groups represented by unions and subject to meet and confer. I know it adds to the complexity but Proposition B would remain in effect for unrepresented employees.

(From Scott: Holy smokes. I mean, holy smokes that’d be a big deal. What she’s saying is that the city may have…

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