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Mayoral candidates count council votes to impose Prop. B’s pay freeze

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San Diego City Councilman and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio announced Thursday he had sufficient City Council support to ensure Proposition B’s five-year pensionable pay freeze would be enacted in full. He’s nearly half right.

Strictly speaking, the councilmembers pledging their support Thursday to DeMaio and Proposition B can only guarantee a two-year freeze.

While Prop. B would move most new city hires from guaranteed pensions to 401(k)-style retirement plans, it derives all of its nearly $1 billion in projected savings from the provision that would hold employee pensionable pay flat for the next five years.

Public employee compensation can’t be determined by citizen initiative, however, so Prop B’s passage instead sets the city’s opening position for the next five years of labor negotiations, known as meet and confer.

The bill also says a two-thirds vote of the council can overturn that negotiating position in each of the five years.

DeMaio intended Thursday to demonstrate he had enough support to block any such council vote.

But the reality is the four votes in favor of the pay freeze — Councilman Kevin Faulconer, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, Councilman-elect Mark Kersey and Councilman-elect Scott Sherman — can only guarantee the pay freeze for the next two years, not the five years required to reach Prop. B’s $1 billion savings figure.

That’s because Faulconer will be termed out of the council by the time the 2014 elections roll around.

DeMaio admitted the pensionable pay freeze is therefore only guaranteed for two years, but said that’s an issue to be confronted in upcoming council races.

“It’s very clear that we have, for these next two years of labor contracts, a guarantee of a pension pay freeze, and I have no reason to believe that’s going to change given the overwhelming voter mandate,” he said.

Faulconer’s lame duck status may not matter anyway, however.

In November’s race for the seat representing the first district, Republican challenger Ray Ellis is a Prop. B supporter facing off against Democratic Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who spurned labor in April when she announced she too supported the pension reform measure.

Also, Council President Tony Young — after 66 percent of voters approved Prop. B in June — has publicly discussed the necessity of implementing the will of the people.

But the specific claim made at Thursday’s press conference — that the four councilmembers standing behind DeMaio guaranteed that the five-year pensionable pay freeze would go through unchanged and without delay — is inaccurate. As DeMaio later admitted, only the next two years are guaranteed.

DeMaio was compelled to hold Thursday’s press conference after his mayoral opponent, Congressman Bob Filner, announced his intention to implement Prop. B.

Filner now says his positive relationship with the city’s labor representatives means he’d be more capable of negotiating the pay freeze than would DeMaio.

But DeMaio’s event Thursday was meant to show that he didn’t need a relationship with labor as long as he could block a two-thirds council vote.

In a statement reacting to DeMaio’s press conference, Filner raised a third possibility: a stalemate between the city and its labor unions if there are the four votes needed to block a change in negotiating position, but not the five votes needed to impose a contract.

“Assuming Carl reaches an impasse with labor groups regarding his five-year freeze — and that is exactly what will happen if he’s elected — he would still need five affirmative votes on the council to impose the pay freeze,” Filner’s statement read. “So, as a result of Carl’s initiative, the city could very well be left with a stalemate -- unable to reach agreement under Prop. B, but also unable to impose its conditions.”

In that case, the pivotal vote could come from whomever wins in the first district, and it might not matter who that is.

The DeMaio-backed Ellis would be a reliable vote to impose the pay freeze, according to a representative from his campaign.

"Ray can be counted to do everything at every turn to defend and implement Prop. B," Matthew Donnellan.

The campaign also continued to point to Lightner's vote against the city's hiring outside legal counsel to defend Prop. B in court as evidence that she couldn't be counted on to defend the measure, despite her support for it.

In the past, Lightner has said her support for Prop. B is based on the savings associated with the pay freeze, and she's previously voted to impose a contract a labor contract.

Public support for the initiative and its five-year freeze, and a history of having voted to impose, however, doesn’t necessarily mean she’d vote to impose the pay freeze.

Lightner's campaign could not be reached for comment to clarify how she would vote.

A previous version of this article did not include comment from the Ellis campaign.

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