Dec. 16 2015 12:58 AM

Rip currents dragging out city negotiations on healthcare coverage

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Lifeguarding, imagined as a desk job.
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent.

—William Shakespeare

Retired Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s recent return to the limelight in hopes of shaming Congress into extending healthcare benefits for 9/11 first responders hit home with former San Diego City Councilmember Ed Harris. (Recall that Harris was appointed to finish the City Council term of now Mayor Kevin Faulconer after a special mayoral election in 2014.)

Now president of the lifeguard union Teamsters Local 911, Harris finds himself waist deep in the churning tides of labor negotiations that have stretched to two years with the city of San Diego. And he can’t help but wonder if his past clashes with council Republicans and Mayor Faulconer over Belmont Park, and a scotched Tommy Bahama clothing deal, are muddying the waters further.

“Everyone pretty much knows that they’re pissed at me because of Belmont Park,” Harris told Spin Cycle this week, noting that a lengthy lease extension with operators of the Mission Beach attraction— approved by the council with much Republican swooning in April—now sits snarled up in court, courtesy of Cory Briggs, the activist attorney City Hall loves to hate.

Then in July, Harris kicked sand into the gears of a corporate sponsorship deal between the city and Tommy Bahama that resulted in more Republican hand wringing. Harris boldly told The San Diego Union-Tribune then that it was payback for the city’s stalled negotiations with its 100 fulltime lifeguards over medical coverage.

“If you don’t have enough time to deal with our health and safety issues,” Harris told the U-T, “then you shouldn’t have enough time to deal with Tommy Bahama.”

Since then, negotiations have been, to say the least, strained, Harris said.

The latest twist in the battle over whether lifeguards, like police officers and firefighters, should be entitled to so-called “presumptive coverage” for illnesses and injuries incurred in the line of duty is an odd contention Harris claims the city made about how lifeguards are categorized.

“The whole thing can be broken down to an interpretation of state law,” Harris said. “State law says that members of a fire department are covered under presumptive coverage.”

As a division of the city’s Fire-Rescue Department, Lifeguard Services should be included in that interpretation, Harris argued. Instead, he said, “our city attorney and mayor are refusing the coverage because they’re saying we’re an administrative part of the fire department.

“Yeah, 7,200 rescues this year, and we’re desk jockeys.”

In recent negotiating sessions, Harris said the city is now denying it made such an interpretation, and Harris acknowledged he has no written proof of the claim. But he told Spin Cycle, “It was one of those things that was so shocking that you remember where you were when they said it.”

He recalled pulling over on Ingraham Street to take the call from city negotiator Tim Davis. “I asked how the city attorney justified not covering us under state law,” Harris said. “His response was that no one disputes that lifeguards are members of a fire department. But he said that California considers us administrative, and therefore we don’t qualify under state law.”

Spin Cycle reached out to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office for a response, but none was forthcoming.

The irony for Harris is twofold. One, he’s well aware of the numerous photo ops the mayor and his Republican soldiers, like District 2 City Councilmember Lorie Zapf, have posed for with lifeguards, “standing with statues, dressing up like lifeguards, jumping off the Ocean Beach pier” with lifeguard trainees.

These are easy, smile-for-the-camera moments that could be interpreted by an unknowing public to mean that certain politicians have lifeguards’ backs. Back in May of last year when the pols hit the beach to celebrate Toyota’s continued city partnership, Mayor Faulconer took a moment to observe: “San Diego’s lifeguards perform vital services to San Diego residents and visitors every day.”

And it’s not all glamorous Baywatch shit. Sometimes it’s dealing with real shit, like during rescues in the polluted Tijuana River Valley. Or plucking some numbskull off a beach cliff (more than 60 of those so far this year, Harris said). Or wading into floodwaters harboring unknown pathogens and pollutants.

No, friends, this job ain’t no slow-motion jog in the sand.

Harris said a video produced for the city by lifeguards, as well as testimony about “the blood and gore and the exposure to chemicals and gas and fumes,” made the case for what lifeguards must endure. The five Democrats on the City Council, he said, are in complete agreement on the matter, but Harris noted that it takes six votes to tango, and none of the four Republicans on the council are budging.

The second bit of irony, Harris said, comes from a decision he has yet to make: Whether to challenge Faulconer for mayor next year. For Faulconer’s devotees, if you’re not on Team Kevin, you might as well sign up for Team Satan.

“What I can tell you is what I’ve told labor and the Democrats, which is I haven’t ruled it out,” Harris said of a possible run. “But I’m not any closer to making a decision than I was two months ago.”

He joked that he’d love another appointment to the City Council, of which there is zero chance. But it goes to the bane of many a potential candidate: the noxious notion of campaign-money trolling.

When he was appointed to serve out Faulconer’s remaining council term, “I didn’t have to make promises to people or collect the dirty money. I very much enjoyed my time on the council, but I didn’t have to go through the election portion.”

Harris also is the father of two young children. Part of him knows that’s an important focus, as noted by Gretchen Newsom’s recent decision to cancel her mayoral run because of an impending divorce and concern about her son.

“When I got out of office, I took my 12 year old backpacking in Nicaragua,” Harris said, “and that’s what I really should be doing right now.”

But it’s also easy to diagnose his affliction with the political bug. Family time “doesn’t scratch the itch that I have, unfortunately, that I wish I didn’t have to scratch,” he said. “And things are pretty messed up in the city. I just don’t know if they’re messed up enough for the general public to want to see a change.”

He’s also smart enough to know Faulconer’s campaign coffers, already sizable, will only grow. “He has a war chest that could make an angel look like a devil, you know?” Harris added. “And I’m no angel.”

Not one to hold his tongue, Harris also suggested that the presumptive leaders of the local Democratic Party—termedout state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and City Councilmember Todd Gloria, both of whom picked other state campaign battles over one with Faulconer— might be less than thrilled with Harris in the race.

Some political oddsmakers believe these two might be eyeing a return to city politics in 2020 when Faulconer is termed out. “My guess is they’re more than happy to wait four years when they have a better shot at it rather than putting somebody in there that could tie up the job for eight years,” Harris said.

But just like he’s pitched for war to get his lifeguards the health coverage they deserve, he does toss out this teaser for a 2016 mayoral scrum with Faulconer. “No need to ruin the holidays by making that decision now,” he laughed. “Maybe just get in for four months and kick him in the teeth!”

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