California Appellate Court Rules that State Labor Law Preempts a Voter-Approved Measure Setting City Firefighter Salaries
On March 24, 2022, a California appellate court ruled that a voter-approved measure setting city salaries in the event of an impasse in labor disputes is preempted by the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (“MMBA”), and an unlawful delegation of power. (Pacifica Firefighters Assoc. v. City of Pacifica (Cal. Ct. March 24, 2022) Case No. A161575 (Pacifica).) In 1988, the voters in the City of Pacifica (“City”) approved Measure F, which prescribes procedures to be followed in the event of an impasse in labor disputes with the City firefighters’ union. Measure F provides a mechanism to set top step salaries of the City’s fire captains at an amount not less than the average for top step salaries of fire captains in five neighboring cities if the City and the Pacifica Firefighters Association (“Association”) cannot agree on such salaries.
In 2019, the City and Association reached impasse during bargaining for a successor memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) and the Association sought a writ of mandate and declaratory relief requiring the City to follow Measure F. On October 18, 2020, the trial court issued an order denying the Association’s petition, finding that Measure F is preempted by state labor law and amounted to an unlawful delegation of power. The Association appealed.
Union’s Reliance on Kugler Decision
The Association argued that their case is controlled by Kugler v. Yocum (1968) 69 Cal.2d 371 (Kugler), which held that a proposed ordinance requiring salaries of firefighters in the City of Alhambra to be set at no less than the average of the salaries received by firefighters in the neighboring City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles did not unlawfully delegate the Alhambra City Council’s legislative power to the parties who establish salaries for firefighters in the neighboring jurisdictions. (Id. at pp. 373-374.) Of note, Kugler provided safeguards which are not present in Measure F, namely, that the Alhambra City “Council . . . shall have the power to . . . establish . . . the amount of [the fire division’s] . . . salaries’ (§ 81) and that the ‘electors . . . shall have the right to . . . adopt . . . any ordinance which the council might enact’ (§ 176). Since in dealing with wage rates, the city council acts in its ‘legislative’ rather than its ‘administrative’ capacity [citations omitted], wage rates are a proper subject for adoption as an ordinance by a city council and, accordingly, pursuant to 10 section 176, for enactment by an initiative.” (Kugler, supra, 69 Cal.2d at p. 374.)
The Association argued that their case was directly analogous to Kugler, suggesting that under Measure F, after firefighter salaries are determined by the Board, the City “retains full discretionary power in determining whether the data and the Board findings are sound and how, exactly the City will execute its own previously determined policy achieving pay parity for the City’s Firefighters.”
The Court of Appeals identified two problems with the Association’s view. First, and the most obvious distinction between the Association’s facts and Kugler, is that the Association’s emphasis on the discretion Measure F leaves the city council ignores the fact that Measure F prescribes a minimum amount at which firefighters’ compensation must be fixed at. While Measure F allows the city council to reject the factfinding board’s recommendations, it provides the city council with no discretion as to the minimum amount of firefighters’ compensation. Measure F requires compensation no less than that of firefighters in the identified neighboring jurisdictions.
Second, the Association attempted to avoid the distinction between the electorate and the city council by referring to the City’s “own previously determined policy” of setting firefighters’ compensation at no less than that of firefighters in comparison cities. In doing so, the Association sought to treat the voters’ policy decision as in effect a policy decision by city council. However, the Association’s argument failed to properly address the fact that Kugler involved a charter city whose charter expressly gave the voters the right to adopt legislation the city council could enact, while the City of Pacifica is a general law city. As a general law city, the City is subject to CA Govt Code § 36506, which provides, “[b]y resolution or ordinance, the city council shall fix the compensation of all appointive officers and employees.” The City correctly asserted that the California Supreme Court, in Bagley v. City of Manhattan Beach (1976) 18 Cal.3d 22 (Bagley), has “already held” section 36506 “bars voters of a general law city from delegating the city council’s exclusive authority to fix employee compensation.”
Next, the Association emphasized that there is no language in the MMBA indicating the legislation is not intended to preempt all local legislation: Section 3500 states, in relevant part, “[n]othing contained herein shall be deemed to supersede the provisions of existing state law and the charters, ordinances, and rules of local public agencies that establish and regulate a merit or civil service system….[t]his chapter is intended, instead, to strengthen merit, civil service and other methods of administering employer-employee relations….” However, the court favored the City’s view on the issue in finding that Measure F undercut and frustrates the purposes of the MMBA. First, Measure F’s requires that city council set firefighters’ top salaries at an amount “not less than the average” for top step salaries in the specified cities, thereby eliminating the city council’s “statutory authority to unilaterally impose its last, best, and final offer” if negotiations are not successful. Second, Measure F does not require the factfinding board to weigh the factors required to be considered and weighed by the factfinding panel under the MMBA, instead requiring the board’s finding comport with the “not less than” standard.
The Court of Appeal held that Measure F precludes the city council from exercising its right under section 3505.7 to impose its last, best, and final offer in the event of an impasse in negotiations and agreed with the trial court that Measure F is unenforceable as a usurpation of authority the Legislature granted exclusively to the city council and affirmed the judgment and awarded costs to the City of Pacifica.
This case highlights the overriding importance of the MMBA and other state labor laws in regulating the collective bargaining process, and its preemptive impact on local laws or voter initiatives involving negotiable subjects. The case also reflects the differences in authority exercised by charter cities and general law cities, and how this authority interacts with state labor law. We encourage public agencies to contact the authors of this alert or your regular AALRR counsel with questions on how this case affects labor developments at your agency.
 The Court of Appeal noted that the MMBA did not contain mandatory impasse procedures when Measure F was adopted in 1988. The addition of the factfinding and impasse procedures were added by Assembly Bill No. 646 in 2011, now found in sections 3505.4, 3505.5, and 3505.7.