The Riehl World: The Union Distraction

by Richard J. Riehl on March 26, 2010

Img 7516-1If you walk the seawall late at night along Carlsbad Boulevard, you may hear voices in the distance sounding the alarm: “To arms! To arms! The unions are coming! The unions are coming!”

The familiar warning cry began with a Feb. 20 headline in the North County Times: “City’s unions expected to play active role in mayoral election.”

From the day City Councilman Keith Blackburn declared his candidacy for mayor, tongues have been wagging about how police and firefighters unions have announced their intent to do whatever they can to put the former police officer in the seat that Bud Lewis occupied for a quarter of a century.

Unlike in Oceanside, labor unions have not played a major role in Carlsbad City Council politics. With more union involvement, will North County’s model municipality of political civility be in danger of being sucked into the all-consuming black hole of partisanship that plagues its northern neighbor?

Follow the jump for the rest of the story. . .
That brings up the question of whether unions alone can change the climate of city government. If the two cities were alike in other ways, adding union influence might have a similar impact. But a closer look at how the cities differ in the challenges facing their city officials suggests Carlsbad voters may have nothing to fear but fear itself.

For starters, take a look at the budget charts of taxing and spending on the Web sites of the two cities. Carlsbad’s pie chart shows 57 percent of revenue coming from taxes and 18 percent of expenditures going to public safety. In Oceanside, taxes generate 69 percent of income, while 62 percent of expenses go to public safety.

The ingredients of the two slices of the pie may not be directly comparable, but in politics, public perceptions count most. Questions about where the money comes from and where it goes are the hot-button issues that can lead to dysfunctional politics in every city. Their budget charts alone suggest that Carlsbad and Oceanside officials face very different city finance issues.

An online respondent to the Feb. 20 newspaper article urged his fellow citizens not to vote for any candidate who gets a penny of union support. He should be reminded that the generous city employee retirement benefits that folks like him complain about were created by a council with nary a member beholden to union financial support. The seeds of Carlsbad’s budget vulnerability were planted during the years of an economic boom that city officials apparently thought would never end.

Councilman Matt Hall, another candidate for mayor, was among those decision makers.

Maybe Carlsbad voters should be less afraid of labor unions and more interested in new leadership.

Richard J. Riehl writes from Carlsbad. Contact him at

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rob April 7, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I agree with much of what was said above. But you have to give credit and criticism equally. The same city council that “planted the seeds of economic vulnerability” were the architects of “North County‚Äôs model municipality”.

I would also urge Richard and anyone else interested and able to put the numbers into a spreadsheet and play with them. 1% may not sound like much but applied to every pension of every employee every year as they move toward retirement multiplied by their (I sincerely hope) long and happy retirement is an unsustainably big number.

I appreciate city employees and fire and police in particular. But the union officials who represent them will have taken their pay, their bonuses and their retirement and rode into the sunset. And when the system comes crashing down and the policemen, firemen and city employees who EARNED their retirement are out of luck, those union “leaders” will be nowhere to be found.

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