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.