Union takes issue with councilman's money-saving idea

May 20, 2011 8:50:21 PM PDT
The city of San Jose is facing a $115 million budget shortfall and hundreds of people are facing layoffs. But the elimination of one position in one councilmember's office is turning into a real legal fight, and saving money has actually created an uproar.

Councilmember Pete Constant did something in late 2007 that is still reverberating on the 18th floor of City Hall. Every councilmember in San Jose relies on a staff of four to six people, and every council district is served by an administrative assistant, except District 1.

"Of course there are still administrative tasks to do, but that's something that can be shared throughout everyone in the office and everybody has to do a little bit, and if I have to do a little bit, I do it," says Constant.

The union representing administrative assistants is crying foul and here's why. The administrative assistant position earns about $71,000 a year, but the salary for council aides varies dramatically. The four people in councilmember Constant's office make from $12,000 a year, for an intern position, to approximately $40,000 for a council assistant .

The union says it's in their contract that administrative duties be performed by someone from the Confidential Employees organization. The union says the position is to serve the residents, not the individual councilmember.

"These are professional people. They do have professional skills," says LaVerne Washington, president of the Confidential Employees Union. "These are also people who have an extensive knowledge of how the city works, what the city does."

Councilmember Constant says he was able to save the city about $50,000 last year and has a more flexible staff, better able to go into the community to serve his constituents. Besides, he says, mobile technology allows him to do a lot of his own scheduling and traditional administrative work.

"That's an issue that we look at in every city department and should be looking at all the time? what is the best way to get the work done to serve the residents of San Jose," says San Jose's director of employee relations, Alex Gurza, who is backing the twice-elected representative of west San Jose.

The union is fighting back and in March was been successful in forcing the matter to arbitration. It's arguing the skilled position must be filled and that councilmember Constant didn't follow the proper procedure in doing away with the job.

"He does not have the right to unilaterally decide that this is a position that the city of San Jose does not need to fill or its residents do not need," says Washington. "He does not speak for the entire city."

Until the legal process results in a decision, District 1 will have no administrative assistant, and given the city budget crisis, councilmember Constant scoffs at the criticism.

"I'm trying to be as efficient as I can with the tax dollars that are given to me to run my office, and if that means that I am being too efficient, I don't have any apologies for that," says Constant. "My job is to serve the residents in the most cost effective way that I can."

Constant is San Jose's only Republican on the City Council, and so far, the only one to opt out of the administrative help.

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