The section of Santa Rosa's bylaws defining what kinds of retirement benefits the city must pay its workers should be changed to give the city more flexibility, a committee exploring changes to the city charter has concluded.

The 21-member Charter Review Committee unanimously voted in a straw poll Thursday to recommend the charter be stripped of language restricting retirement benefits to Social Security or CalPERS, the state Public Employee Retirement System.

The charter currently says that "no pensions of any kind or character" other than those two systems shall be paid to city workers or retirees.

That effectively prohibits the city from offering its workers 401(k)-style or other types of retirement plans that might save the city money.

As the city's pension costs through Cal-PERS have ballooned, some have argued that the city needs to be able to consider lower cost retirement options.

"I think the consensus was that the whole pension situation is a very complex issue and there was a concern that the council's hands were tied with the language as we now have it," said Mike Senneff, chairman of the group.

Most city unions signed a letter saying they did not object to the change, and the committee spent little time debating the proposal, said member Bob Andrews.

That's because the change itself doesn't change anything. It merely allows for future changes, which are far from certain and must be negotiated with unions, he said.

"It isn't an active step to limit anything," Andrews said. "It's removing a restriction."

A far more controversial issue could be next Thursday's discussion about binding arbitration, that the charter requires for disputes over public safety contracts.

For that, Andrews expects "howls of protest" from police and fire representatives.

The group is taking straw votes as issues come up and then taking a formal vote at the end of what is expected to be a six-month process. The group recommends charter changes to the City Council, which will consider putting them before voters.

The meetings are held from 5-7 p.m. on Thursdays in the city's utilities operations building, 35 Stony Point Road.

Victims identified in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino fires

Sonoma County:

Karen Aycock, 56, Santa Rosa

Christina Hanson, 27, Santa Rosa

Linda Tunis, 69, Santa Rosa

Carol Collins-Swasey, 76, Santa Rosa

Lynne Anderson Powell, 72, Santa Rosa

Arthur Tasman Grant, 95, Santa Rosa

Suiko Grant, 75, Santa Rosa

Donna Mae Halbur, 80, Larkfield

Leroy Peter Halbur, 80, Larkfield

Valerie Lynn Evans, 75, Santa Rosa

Carmen Caldentey Berriz, 75, Apple Valley (vacationing in Santa Rosa)

Michael John Dornbach, 57, rural Calistoga

Veronica Elizabeth McCombs, 67, Santa Rosa

Carmen Colleen McReynolds, 82, Santa Rosa

Sharon Rae Robinson, 79, Santa Rosa

Mike Grabow, 40, Santa Rosa

Daniel Martin Southard, 71, Santa Rosa

Lee Chadwick Roger, 72, Glen Ellen

Mendocino County:

Roy Howard Bowman, 87, Redwood Valley

Irma Elsie Bowman, 88, Redwood Valley

Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, Redwood Valley

Napa County:

George Chaney, 89, Napa

Edward Stone, 79, Napa

Charles Rippey, 100, Napa

Sara Rippey, 98, Napa

Sally Lewis, 90, Napa

Teresa Santos, 50, Napa

Garrett Paiz, 38, Missouri