“Love is in the air,” Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones declared in her opening remarks for the invocation of Tuesday’s City Council meeting. From there, everyone proceeded to attack one another.
The public comments portion of the council meeting featured a passionate cast of characters speaking for or against the June pension reform ballot, which passed by an 8-3 vote.
A retired firefighter recited a poem he wrote, reps for the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce were booed on their way back to their seats, a lady threatened to occupy councilmembers’ homes every day and David Wall wore pressed overalls as he ripped into everyone.
James Rowen made the best-received comment of the day by guessing that a lawsuit against the city could lead to “oh, $650 million” in lawsuit fees. He added that he just made the number up off the top of his head to a soaring round of applause.
But there were some people not sitting on the dais who favored approving the ballot measure, including: Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone; Pat Sausedo, VP of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce; Jeff Cristina, a councilmember for the city of Campbell; and Bob Kieve, owner of KLIV. Hisses and signs reading “FALSE” accompanied these comments. (When pro-labor speakers addressed the council, the signs in the audience were flipped and read “TRUE.” If you were sitting in the rear of the chambers and walked in late, this would have been baffling.)
After more than an hour of public discussion, Mayor Chuck Reed and the councilmembers had their say, or at least tried to have their say when members of the public weren’t shouting them down.
“We’ve been a leader (on pension reform) because we’ve been forced to due to skyrocketing retirement costs,” Reed said, adding that the city paid $245 million in retirement costs this year, more than triple the cost from a decade ago.
The mayor added that the choices were either approving the retirement benefits reform ballot measure “or we could have to cut people’s pay again or lay more people off.” He paused to look into the crowd as audience members openly mocked him with catcalls and laconic insults. Clearly fed up, Reed asked several people in the crowd to “shut your mouth” now that the public comments section was over, leading one man in the rear of the crowd to yell, “You had a longer sixty seconds than we did!” The man walked out of the council chambers before security was forced to remove him.
Vice Mayor Nguyen voted with Reed and said she didn’t want to look back “10, 20 years and say I did nothing” to keep the city operating at a sustainable level.
Councilmember Pete Constant asked for the ballot measure language to be modified slightly before voting with the mayor. The new wording, he said, would make it easier for voters to understand.
Councilmember Pierluigi Oliveiro again stressed his wish for public negotiations before voting with the mayor. However, Oliverio added that he thought the tenor of the public comments didn’t reflect the opinion of most voters.
Councilmember Nancy Pyle again pushed for a local sales tax increase before addressing the concerns of employees. Taking off her glasses, Pyle sympathized with the crowd and said, “It isn’t fair. It’s a rotten thing that has happened to all of us.” But, acknowledging her constituency in Almaden, she said she would support the ballot measure.
Councilmember Rose Herrera said the ballot measure “is also good for employees,” which caused a considerable grumble in the audience. Her reasons for her vote focused on the potential to eventually raise wages and retirement benefits once the system is on more sustainable footing.
Councilmember Kansen Chu voted against the ballot measure. His argument: “My question is it fair to pass this very difficult, very complicated issue to the voters?” Chu was joined by Councilmember Xavier Campos, who said he is against the ballot measure “for one very simple reason: because it will endanger the health and safety of the people in San Jose.” He added that “we’re gonna get sued … in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Councilmember Ash Kalra lamented the “myopic approach” the mayor and some of his colleagues were taking in pension reform over other issues. In his arguments, Kalra punched a hole in the city staff’s wording about disability job placement procedure meant to prevent fraudulent claims. The mayor stared straight ahead with his chin resting on his folded hands.
Kalra also asserted that the main supporters of pension reform were prodded to do so by emails from Mayor Reed and Councilmember Constant. At the end of a lengthy speech discussing the legal pitfalls and lack of precedent in the courts for the city’s ballot measure, Kalra, who voted against the measure, received a standing ovation from the pro-labor members of the audience.
Councilmember Sam Liccardo voted for the ballot measure and stressed that the council is not the boss of city employees, but that the citizens of San Jose are every public employee’s boss. A memo Liccardo submitted before the meeting requested that City Attorney Rich Doyle “file an action for declaratory relief in the trial court of competent jurisdiction.” According to the memo, which Constant brought up earlier in the meeting, the action will allow for “judicial determination of whether the City may adjust the compensation of current employees through additional retirement contributions or pay reductions.”
Councilmember Don Rocha was the last on the dais to speak, and he tried to offer several changes to Constant’s substitute motion but was rebuffed by his colleague. This resulted in Rocha delivering several pointed remarks, before surprisingly supporting the ballot measure.