Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 6, 2010

Around Town

FRESH TERMS ... Palo Alto's famously thorough Planning and Transportation Commission almost lost one of its chief skeptics Monday night. Arthur Keller, who has been on the commission for four years, barely retained his seat on the influential board after only five council members voted to reappoint him to the commission. Keller, the commission's resident data cruncher and master of analogies (in recent years, he has turned hamburgers, horses, pigs, pythons and mice into housing and traffic metaphors), was reappointed to another term, but only after stiff competition from school-district volunteer Sarah Carpenter. The City Council unanimously voted to reappoint the commission's Vice Chair Samir Tuma to another term, but barely reached consensus when voting on Keller's seat. The majority ultimately opted for stability. Council members Greg Schmid, Karen Holman, Yiaway Yeh, Sid Espinosa and Gail Price voted to elect Keller to a fresh four-year term. Mayor Pat Burt and council members Larry Klein, Nancy Shepherd and Greg Scharff voted for Carpenter.

THE NEW DEAL ... For the Palo Alto City Council, the Monday night meeting was both the best and worst of times for labor negotiations. The council scrapped its proposal to place the city's binding-arbitration provision on the November ballot, but grudgingly agreed to place on the ballot the firefighters' initiative to freeze staffing levels in the Fire Department ("We have to put it on the ballot — it's not a choice," Greg Scharff explained, almost apologetically). But the meeting also featured a major milestone for the city's relationship with its biggest union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 521. The two sides famously clashed last year, when contract talks broke down and the City Council imposed benefit reductions on the 600-plus workers represented by the union. The union responded by staging a one-day strike and by calling in sick en masse. On Monday, however, the council had nothing but praise and gratitude for the city's largest union. The two sides had formalized the contract changes (including a new pension formula, reduced floating holidays and increased health care contributions) and the council was formally approving its new one-year contract with SEIU. As part of the agreement, the union also withdrew its "unfair labor practice" claims against the city, said Human Resources Director Russ Carlsen, who called the new contract a "significant event for everyone." The new contract represents a reduction of about 4 percent in employee compensation and benefits, he said.

COMPOST WARS ... The phrase "feasibility study" rarely ruffles feathers in Palo Alto, where task forces and multiple public hearings are the chief problem-solving tools. But this week, the city's environmentalists renewed their heated internal debate over the future of composting in Palo Alto. The City Council was prepared to discuss awarding a contract for a feasibility study for a new anaerobic-digestion facility at Byxbee Park. The council approved the study in April by a 5-4 vote after a lengthy debate. The argument continued this week when both proponents and opponents of the proposed plants made another pitch to the council. Advocates for the new plant, including environmentalist Walt Hays and Cedric de la Beaujardier, who last year co-chaired the specially appointed Compost Task Force, both urged the council to approve the study. Project proponents are also gathering signatures for a ballot petition that would allow Byxbee Park land to be used for composting. The new study, Hays said, will give voters some basis for making an informed decision about the new facility. But project opponents, including conservationist Emily Renzel and attorney Tom Jordan, argued that Byxbee Park is no place for a new waste-to-energy facility. Jordan asked the council to reconsider the feasibility study. He also criticized the opposing camp for gathering signatures and preparing for an election before the study is completed. "It's almost as if they're afraid of the information," Jordan said. The council opted to discuss the issue and vote on the contract later in the week.

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