A different tack started Wednesday to try to defuse Pacific Grove's long-burning debate over city employee pensions.
A San Francisco municipal finance expert hired by the city heard plenty of history, conflicting opinions and a blizzard of dollar figures. She was the point person in a new effort to find ways to soften the city's heavy pension burden and head off another ballot measure being readied by a residents' group.
City Manager Thomas Frutchey said the idea was to share information, ideas and possible solutions on the "crisis facing Pacific Grove and so many other cities" with attorney Karol Denniston.
Her approach "does not involve litigation, but focuses on dialog," Frutchey said in a recent City Council report.
About 40 people, most of them sitting in a circle of chairs in the city Community Center, chipped in opinions and questions about the city's relationship with CalPERS, the state retirement system for city employees.
Some said current and future pension costs are draining so much money from the city that services — from police and fire department to the library and youth programs — have suffered for a decade. They said they want to find a way back to a time when the financial cloud wasn't hanging over Pacific Grove.
Others said the city couldn't solve the problem by itself without more action on public pension costs from Sacramento. And some said there is a lot of misleading information about the issue.
"We have to put the caustic dialog behind us," said Darius Engles, a former police chief.
Pension reform has been the object of Pacific Grove ballot measures in 2008 and 2010, and city voters may head back to the polls for another bite at the apple.
The city hired Denniston in response to an ongoing signature-gathering effort to put a measure on the ballot that would overturn a controversial 2002 City Council vote. That vote gave public safety employees more expensive CalPERS pension plans.
City officials say there is little chance of overturning that 2002 decision in court, though critics contend otherwise.
Organizer Daniel Davis said initiative supporters have already collected about 800 signatures and should have no problem getting the number they need to qualify the measure.
Still, he said he would like to see the city and citizens group work out a mutual accord.
"We want to be fair to every employee, and we want to be fair to the public," Davis said.
Pacific Grove is in litigation with its police officers over the 2010 ballot measure that caps future pension contributions by the city to 10 percent of an employee's salary. The police association says the city couldn't make the changes without going through negotiations.
Association president Jeff Fenton, comparing the case to a police criminal investigation, said, "We are letting the courts decide on the legality of everything."
Larry Parsons can be reached at 646-4379 or firstname.lastname@example.org.