Melissa Griffin: Amending Muni’s past ‘mistake’

With Muni operators getting salary increases this week to the tune of $8 million, it’s worth remembering for a moment how this mandatory-raise situation came about.

Prior to 2007, operator pay was subject to a ceiling — they could not earn salaries that exceeded the average of the two highest-paid transit systems in the nation. Then, we passed Proposition A, whose main architect was then-Supervisor Aaron Peskin. Prop. A made the ceiling into a floor. Now, instead of not being able to give more than the average of the two highest-paid transit operators, we can’t give less. Hence the recent raises despite The City’s financial woes.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s “Fix Muni Now” initiative on November’s ballot would eliminate this “floor” and require the operators union to negotiate all aspects of pay and benefits. However, Elsbernd is one of the seven supervisors who voted to put Prop. A on the ballot in the first place (the others were supervisors Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, Bevan Dufty, Sophie Maxwell and Peskin). Voting against Prop. A were supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Ed Jew, Jake McGoldrick and Gerardo Sandoval.

“You voted in favor of Prop. A. What’s with the change of heart?” I asked Elsbernd.

He explained that, when the operators were subject to a “ceiling,” they always got it. The idea was that making that amount a “floor” would allow operators to negotiate for more money in exchange for giving up some work rules that cost The City millions of dollars and impact service. Such an exchange did not happen. The operators union was not willing to budge on the work rules. “I totally underestimated the selfishness of the union,” Elsbernd said.

As for the main author of Prop. A: Peskin is now the chairman of the Democratic County Central Committee. That committee decides Democratic Party endorsements for each election. They will be voting on whether to endorse Elsbernd’s “Fix Muni Now” initiative, along with other propositions, on Wednesday. Then, we’ll see whether Peskin will stand by the Muni salary provision of his ballot initiative.

At any rate, Elsbernd maintains that Prop. A “was our mistake, and hopefully the voters will fix it.”

What you missed at supervisors’ meeting

Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting was mercifully short by recent standards. It was only three hours. Here’s what you missed:

  • The testimony of Public Health Director Mitch Katz pretty much single-handedly stopped the passage of Laura’s Law, which would allow a court to intervene and order treatment for mentally ill people before they commit a crime or injure themselves. Were any alternatives to Laura’s Law offered? Nope. If empty speeches were dollars, we’d have enough to build a whole new mental health facility by now.
  • If the subject is cigarettes or international justice, you can bet Supervisor Eric Mar is involved. Sure enough, on Tuesday, Mar introduced a law that would ban cigarette sales in grocery stores with pharmacies. Currently, only drugstores with pharmacies are prohibited from selling cigarettes.
  • Grocery stores have another issue to contend with, as Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi plans to ratchet up his plastic bag ban by extending it to include all retailers (not just big grocery stores) and charging a 5-cent fee for paper bags. Next thing you know, we’ll be banning beanbags, air bags and gasbags. Actually, that last one wouldn’t be so bad. At least the next Laura’s Law “debate” would be shorter.


Hiring local workers is difficult to mandate by law

A recent study released by the Brightline Defense Project and Chinese for Affirmative Action shows that about 75 percent of the hours worked on city-backed projects is performed by people who don’t live in San Francisco. This infuriating statistic has already led to calls for bigger and better legislation to mandate local hiring. However, before you pen that angry letter to your supervisor, you may consider sending it to our representatives in Washington, D.C.

First of all, when federal funds are used on projects, there are restrictions on how the money can be spent. Often, the feds include a provision that says, “Y’all can’t discourage competition.” Now, as a taxpayer this sounds good because competition will yield the lowest-cost contract. The flip side is that the most competitive bid may come from outside The City.

The folks in Cleveland, Ohio, bless their hearts, have been trying for years to enforce their own local requirement that city residents work 20 percent of all hours on public projects. As recently as June 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation refused to allow such set-asides when federal money is at stake because it inhibits competition. 

A second barrier is found in the U.S. Constitution. Most of you have probably blocked out any memory of the unsexy Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution, which basically says that the laws of one state cannot discriminate against people from another state.

Camden, N.J.’s attempt to impose a 40 percent local hiring requirement was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 because it violated the Privileges and Immunities clause. The court reasoned that, because local governments are chartered little pieces of the state, a local rule that prohibits out-of-state people from bidding for all or part of a public works project is unconstitutional.

While this is not meant to be a full exposition on the issue of local hiring, my point is that this matter is complicated and there are limits on what we can do to employ San Franciscans. Calling for a new law to push those limits may be in order, but there’s no magic bullet that will result in huge amounts of public work for city residents.

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