The city's firefighters union, which gathered more than 6,000 signatures to get the initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot, claims the measure would protect citizens from impulsive decisions by uninformed politicians to close fire stations and reduce staffing levels in the Fire Department. Opponents, led by a coalition called "Safe Palo Alto," counter that the measure will unfairly protect firefighters while forcing police officers, utility workers and other Palo Alto employees to face steeper cuts to their departments.
The two sides have a few other things common. Each says it wants to protect democracy from special interests — either the union or "politicians," depending on who is talking. Each also says it wishes Measure R had never made it onto the ballot, though the firefighters claim their hand was forced by a City Council intent on shrinking an already understaffed department.
If voters approve Measure R, the City Charter would be revised to severely restrict the council's ability to close fire stations and eliminate Fire Department jobs. The measure would embed the current department staffing levels in the charter and require the council to hold two public hearings and a citywide election before it could cut even a single firefighter.
Tony Spitaleri, president of the Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, 1319, says the measure is designed to protect residents from hasty and dangerous council decisions, which he claims are just around the corner.
"The city manager and members of the City Council are looking for ways to reduce resources and possibly close fire stations on a rotational basis," Spitaleri told an audience at an Oct. 6 debate at the Palo Alto Art Center. "We believe the citizens should have a voice in any action that would place them and their loved ones in danger."
The union's attorney, Alan Davis, stoked the rhetorical flames further when he asked the audience to imagine a fire station in their neighborhood facing a "brownout" — as temporary station closures are often called. Would you be willing, Davis asked the audience, to wait longer for a fire engine or a paramedic to get to your house during an emergency?
Opponents of Measure R say the proposal is a brazen "power grab" by the firefighters union. Members of Safe Palo Alto claim the initiative would give the union powers over other labor groups, most notably the police, and wrest control of city budget from the council. It's no coincidence that the campaign adopted "Too Risky for Palo Alto" as its official slogan.
"They talk about public safety," former Mayor Dena Mossar told the Weekly. "They don't even acknowledge that anyone else in the city is a member of the public-safety team.
"They don't even acknowledge that the police are present."
Mossar's group includes former mayors Bern Beecham, Vic Ojakian, Lanie Wheeler, Judy Kleinberg and Liz Kniss and a wide assortment of civic activists, local commissioners and former council members. Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilman Larry Klein are both on the group's campaign committee — a group that includes such unlikely bedfellows as developer Chop Keenan and land-use watchdog Bob Moss. Every member of the current council endorses the Safe Palo Alto campaign, which has raised $58,000 as of Sept. 30.
The council has been sounding alarms since spring about the negative ramifications of Measure R. In April, the council approved a colleagues' memo calling the measure "bad government" and a "waste of money" at a time when the council is wrestling with lagging revenues and consecutive budget deficits. The City Clerk had estimated that mounting the special election in November for Measure R would cost the city about $213,000.
"This is putting a hole in the canoe while we're bailing water," said Councilwoman Karen Holman, one of the authors of the April memo.
Former councilman John Barton, a member of Mossar's coalition, said at the Art Center debate that the firefighters' proposal would make the council's budget duties even harder than they already are. The Measure R debate isn't about public safety, Barton said, but about proper governance.
Palo Alto is "not a direct democracy," Barton reminded the audience. Staffing decisions should be left to the leaders whom the citizens elect to make decisions. Otherwise, he said, residents end up with a dysfunctional system in which the budget is chronically late — sort of like California's.
"If we want to switch to a direct democracy and have citizens vote on every aspect of the budget, let's have that conversation," Barton said.
For all the talk of looming brownouts and democracy under assault, it is easy to see the battle over Measure R as something else — the latest skirmish in the chronic power struggle between a cash-strapped city and its most obstinate union.
Spitaleri, a retired fire captain who currently serves on the Sunnyvale City Council, is a seasoned veteran in this political struggle. He last squared off with Mossar and Barton in 2007, when both were on the City Council. In June of that year, the council passed a city budget that restricted staffing of the Foothills Park fire station to high-risk fire days. In late June, a fire near Junipero Serra Boulevard scorched about 170 acres, stoking a wave of protests from residents about the reduced hours at Station 8. A week later, another fire burned 20 acres of grasslands.
On July 8, 2007, Spitaleri joined foothills residents in calling for the council to keep Station 8 open throughout the summer, as before.
The station, staffed by firefighters working overtime, poses an annual conundrum for the council. At the time, former City Manager Frank Benest and the council were trying to find a cheaper way to staff the station but couldn't persuade the union to renegotiate the relevant staffing provisions in its contract. Spitaleri declined to discuss staffing and asked the council to "not blame the union on everything that's going on."
"The issue here is public safety," Spitaleri told the council in July 2007. "All we do every year is bring to you our concerns of potential danger."
The following week, after hearing from the foothills constituency, a reluctant council reversed course and voted to keep Station 8 open all summer. The station has been reopened every summer since. It continues to be funded through overtime.
The touchy topic of Fire Department staffing simmered in the background until this spring, when the city kicked off its negotiations with the 109-member union over a new contract (the previous contract expired on June 30).
Keene and the council have indicated publicly they hope to use the current negotiation period as an opportunity to decrease firefighters' compensation as has been done in other departments.
Earlier this year, when Palo Alto was facing a projected $6.3 million deficit in its general fund, city officials asked the city's labor groups to share the budget pain. Palo Alto's largest police union, the 83-member Palo Alto Police Officers Association, agreed to defer its negotiated raises for the second straight year. The Service Employees International Union, Local 521, which represents more than half of all city workers, grudgingly accepted reduced benefits, including a two-tiered pension system with less generous pension benefits for new employees. Management workers followed suit.
The fire union, for the second consecutive year, refused to cave in (in 2009, its reluctance to take cuts prompted former Vice Mayor Jack Morton to accuse the department of "giving the city the finger"). This year's budget, which the council approved in late June, raises the Fire Department budget by $1 million, largely because of previously negotiated increases in salaries and benefits.
According to city data, an average firefighters union member receives a salary of $104,878, along with $16,001 in overtime. When benefits are factored in, the average annual compensation is $178,387.
Firefighters counter that, unlike other workers, they bring in major revenues. In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2011, the department is projected to contribute about $11 million in revenues (compared to $26.2 in expenditures).
The subject of staffing levels is the most explosive topic in the current negotiations. Spitaleri told the Weekly the union has repeatedly offered concessions that would save the city more than $1 million while maintaining current staffing levels. The city refused to accept these terms, he said.
The union contract includes a "minimum staffing" provision that requires the city to have at least 29 firefighters on duty at every shift. Keene has told the Weekly the requirement precludes the city from even discussing alternative ways to staff the department. The city wants to revisit the provision, while the union hopes to preserve status quo. Spitaleri said the "minimum staffing" provision is needed to protect citizens.
The union has another reason to feel anxious about department staffing. Palo Alto is now completing a study aimed at evaluating the Fire Department's resources and recommending ways it can operate more efficiently. The study has been on the city's agenda since 2003, when the City Auditor's Office first recommended it, and is due to be completed later this fall.
Spitaleri claims the council wants to use this study as a pretext for slashing staffing. He pointed to a similar study the city was conducting earlier this year to measure the effectiveness of current staffing levels. In April, the council's Finance Committee was receiving a status report on that study, conducted by the firm Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI), when council members were startled to learn that the consultant managing the study had never recommended a staffing reduction.
"I'm not sure we're getting the kind of study that we all thought we were," said Councilman Greg Scharff, capturing the council sentiment.
The committee quickly ditched the study and commissioned a new one, which is now being jointly conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and the Virginia-based firm TriData. Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil said the study examines data from the fire-dispatch unit and considers ways to reduce the Fire Department's overtime hours. The report is scheduled to be completed in late November.
Council members say the study is an important and overdue analysis of department operations and marvel at the firefighter union's opposition to the pending report.
"It seems to me, if things are as they describe, they should welcome the report that would verify what they're saying," Klein said.
Spitaleri, for his part, points to the aborted Emergency Services Consulting International report and to a recent study completed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which recommends four-person firefighter crews as the most effective response forces for low-hazard fire operations (in Palo Alto, three-person crews are the standard). These reports, Spitaleri said, are being tossed aside by the council because they don't say what the council wants to hear.
"Our command staff is at a very low level, and it's a dangerous situation," Spitaleri said at the Oct. 6 debate, referring to the department's nine management positions. "Every report that says we have to boost it up is being ignored."
He also took issue with the pending report, noting that Antil has a long history with ICMA, where she has served on various policy committees. Antil called the joint report from ICMA and TriData an "independent analysis" and said the group conducting the report includes former fire chiefs and other public-safety officials.
Antil said the ICMA team will focus on dispatch data, while TriData will wrestle with the question for overtime. She said her membership in ICMA has "no bearing whatsoever" on the group's work.
The new report, however, is just one reason why firefighters are bracing for cuts, Spitaleri said. Pleas from firefighters and residents to maintain adequate fire staffing have been falling on deaf ears for years, he said. Palo Alto residents need to have a say in these decisions, he says. That's why Measure R is necessary.
Members of Safe Palo Alto laugh off the union's premise that Palo Alto residents currently don't have a voice in the council's decisions. Ironically, both they and the fire union point to the 2007 dispute over Station 8 as exemplifying their points — either that the council makes reckless decisions about staffing or that the council listens to its constituency and reverses course accordingly.
More recent examples suggest that Palo Altans may not be as timid or voiceless — nor the council as unwilling to listen — as the union alleges. Earlier this year, residents packed public hearings to urge the council to maintain funding for school-crossing guards; to dispute a 33 percent increase in garbage collection for residents who use 20-gallon minicans; and to refrain from imposing housing-size limits in the foothills. The council sided with residents in all three cases.
Safe Palo Alto's Barton, Mossar and Beecham point to a wide array of ways residents have to reach their public officials. In addition to the "public comment" period at council meetings, during which time any speaker can talk for three minutes, residents can write letters, send e-mails, make phone calls, post comments on online forums and use the city's Open City Hall website, which allows residents to weigh in on the hot agenda topics of the day.
Given these forums, "the idea that the public is excluded or has no voice just doesn't make sense," Barton said at the Oct. 6 debate.
Beecham agreed and said Measure R would needlessly take away from the council one of its most essential duties.
"The public does elect the council to make decisions and to do labor negotiations," Beecham told the Weekly. "To do anything but that for one special group is simply wrong."
Watch it online
Video excerpts from both sides of the Measure R debate are posted on Palo Alto Online.