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The committee charged with exploring changes to the Santa Rosa city charter has identified public pensions as its top priority.

The city's 21-member Charter Review Committee narrowed a list of eight possible changes to the city charter down to a handful it wanted to tackle first.

Any change would require voter approval.

Fourteen members of the committee listed pensions as one of the top three issues they wanted to see addressed first. That's not necessarily because they were in favor of changes, but because public pensions are such a hot-button issue in the community, several said.

The charter prohibits the city from offering any kind of pension plan for its workers other than those provided by federal Social Security or the California Public Employee Retirement System. The city uses CalPERS exclusively.

Some members of the city's Pension Reform Task Force, which explored pension overhaul ideas this year, identified this clause as an impediment to the city implementing other types of retirement plans that might save the city money, such as 401k or hybrid plans.

Other issues the committee favored handling sooner rather than later include:

-- Binding arbitration for public safety workers. This charter provision was passed by voters in 1996. It requires that contract disputes be decided by a three-member arbitration panel and that the city pay salaries and benefits comparable to that of similar cities. These provisions have been cited by some as a root cause for the soaring costs of the city's police and fire departments.

-- District elections. Currently the charter requires city-wide elections of the seven city council members. Electing them from districts, such as for county supervisors , has been cited by some as a way to increase diversity and accountability in city politics. Some have floated the possibility of a hybrid system with some council members representing districts and others the entire city.

-- Role of the Community Advisory Board. Created in 2002 after the last charter review process, several members admitted they have little understanding of the function of the CAB. "I don't know who my CAB representative is," admitted committee chairman Mike Senneff. "I never even think about it."

Senneff opened the group's second meeting by addressing criticism that the committee lacks diversity. The group is made up largely of older, white, political insiders from the northeast part of the city. Mayor Ernesto Olivares earlier this week acknowledged the council had failed to appoint a committee that reflected the diversity of the city, which is 40 percent minority.

Senneff urged committee members to set such issues aside and concentrate on the work at hand.

"The reality is that we're all here with a common interest of trying to help this community function in the future," he said.

Thursday's meeting was the first to be recorded. The city council on Tuesday, in an effort to increase public participation in the process, directed the city's Community Media Center to begin taping the meetings.

Only a handful of public members attended Thursday's meeting, which was held at 5 p.m. at the city's new Utilities Field Operations building at 35 Stony Point Road. None spoke. The next meetings are scheduled for Oct. 27 and Nov. 3.

The process must be completed by June for the committee's recommendations to make it to the city council in time for any to qualify for the November 2012 ballot.