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Cities begin legal challenge over arbitration while they and allies craft funding measure

Capitol Alert: Political Pulse Jan. 12th
The Newsletter of California Politics and Government
Bud Lembke and Larry Lynch, Co-Publishers

Cities, counties and their allies are putting heads together in an effort to craft a ballot measure to restore property taxes shifted away from local governments to fill the state's deficit gap during the early 1990s.

At the same time, a continuing battle over binding arbitration legislation approved last year seems to be driving an even deeper wedge between two major supporters of such an initiative, the League of California Cities and the California Professional Firefighters.

Citing a need to pre-empt "numerous lawsuits filed by individual cities around the state," the League on Jan. 2 announced it was asking the Fifth District Count of Appeal in Fresno to rule unconstitutional SB 402, a mandatory arbitration measure governing labor disputes involving local public safety personnel. Under the bill by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D- San Francisco, signed into law last year, when bargaining units for police and fire unions reach an impasse during wage and benefit negotiations with localities, the unions may insist on binding arbitration.

Steve Mayer, the attorney representing the League, argued that "the bill violates a provision of the California Constitution that prohibits the delegation of local budget decisions to a private individual -- the arbitrator -- not elected by the people of the community." And, he added, "it violates a constitutional provision that gives charter cities absolute authority to determine employee compensation."

In asking the court to stay implementation of the law, which took effect Jan. 1, the League took the extraordinary step of trying to leap over the state's initial trial court level, the superior court. It also named as defendant the International Association of Fire Fighters, a move that sparked bemused commentary from the state firefighters group.

Carroll Wills, director of communications for the California Professional Firefighters, said the attempt to file the case "in a Fresno appeals court well-stocked with Republican appointees (and) against the international, which is the big bad union in Washington D.C." gave the filing the aura of "playing to their membership and playing to public perception rather than a serious legal effort."

Added Wills: "They didn't file against any of the locals, or CPF. And they didn't risk upsetting Gov. Davis by filing against the state, which is the logical place to go with this."

Wills also noted that as far as the state firefighter organization is aware, no local firefighter union has reached the point of impasse that could trigger binding arbitration. "We're telling our locals this is a tool not a weapon," Wills said. "Our expectation is that there won't be a lot of arbitration filed. For one thing, it is very expensive and all but cents on the dollar is going to be incurred by the local union."

In any event, the League's initial legal foray didn't go very far. By week's end the Fifth Circuit court had refused to take the case.

That refusal was spun quite differently by the League and the state firefighters.

The League emphasized a portion of the statement of the court of appeals noting that the binding arbitration statute involves issues "of such significant public interest that it is appropriate that they be decided in the first instance in the highest court of this State."

Citing that language, the League said it would "promptly seek resolution of these issues by the California Supreme Court."

Firefighters have been among the groups seeking more funding for local government. It could be interesting to watch how they decide to play their hand in the Legislature and in any initiative campaign, given this confrontation with the League.

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