Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 13, 2011

News Digest

Stanford Hospital expansion wins key vote

After four years of hearings, debates and negotiations, Stanford University Medical Center's proposal to dramatically expand its hospital facilities in Palo Alto is now rounding the final corner en route to the city's approval.

Though the hospital-expansion project — the largest construction project in Palo Alto's history — still awaits the final approval from the City Council, over the past month Stanford and the city have resolved all of the major issues of dispute. Stanford's momentum continued Wednesday night when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission recommended approval of a critical environmental analysis for the hospital expansion.

The commission voted 4-2, with commissioners Arthur Keller and Susan Fineberg dissenting and Chair Samir Tuma abstaining, to recommend certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Stanford project — a massive document that lists the potential impacts of the hospital expansion and proposes ways to mitigate them. Keller and Fineberg both voted against the approval because they wanted more information before taking the vote.

While Stanford still has to clear several hurdles, including at least one additional planning-commission meeting to review the proposed development-agreement and other issues, officials from both the hospital and the city expressed optimism Wednesday about the progress made.

The Palo Alto council is scheduled to vote on the project in June.

Palo Alto eyes changes to binding-arbitration law

After balking last year, Palo Alto officials renewed their push Tuesday night to kill or modify a local law that empowers an arbitration panel to settle disputes between the city and its public-safety unions.

In their first discussion of binding arbitration since last August, members of a City Council committee said Tuesday they are interested in bringing the issue to the voters either this November or in 2012. The four-member committee didn't take a vote on the issue, but three members spoke out against the provision and argued that the rule keeps Palo Alto's elected officials from fulfilling their budget-balancing obligations.

The provision, which is encoded in Chapter V of the City Charter, brings labor disputes between city management and police and fire unions to a three-member panel, with one member chosen by each side and a third member chosen by the other two panelists.

The council considered putting the repeal of binding arbitration on the November 2010 ballot but ultimately voted 4-5 not to do so. At that meeting, several council members said they would support the repeal but argued that the process is rushed and merits more discussion. Council members were also dissuaded from pursuing the repeal last year by the Palo Alto Police Officer's Association, whose members had agreed to defer their salary increases for two years in a row to help the city balance its budget.

Most of the discussion around binding arbitration focuses on the city's firefighters, who have refused to accept the types of benefit concessions that other labor groups had adopted. The union's contract expired last year, and the negotiations between city and union officials have been at an impasse since February.

City management and the union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, are preparing to enter binding-arbitration proceedings in the fall to settle the dispute.

Report: Strip power from California rail authority

California's proposed high-speed-rail system is facing potentially crippling threats from looming federal deadlines and weak oversight by the agency charged with building the project, the state Legislative Analyst's Office concluded in a new report.

The scathing report, which the nonpartisan office released Tuesday, recommends stripping the California High-Speed Rail Authority of its decision-making powers and giving the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) oversight over the increasingly controversial project. The Legislative Analyst's Office also concluded the rail authority's business plan remains deeply flawed; that most of the revenues the agency is banking on to fund the new system are unlikely to materialize; that the project will cost far more than the rail authority's official estimate of $43 billion; and that the rail authority's decision to begin the line in Central Valley is a "big gamble" based on "faulty assumptions."

The report, titled "High-Speed Rail Is at a Critical Juncture," comes as another major blow to a project that voters approved in November 2008 but that has since been plagued by financial uncertainty and scathing criticism from communities along the proposed route. While previous audits had also highlighted flaws in the rail authority's business plan, ridership assumptions and day-to-day operations, the new report goes a step further and argues that the state Legislature should reject the rail authority's funding request for the next fiscal year and halt the project altogether unless federal deadlines are renegotiated and the governance structure for the project is revamped.

— Gennady Sheyner

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