Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 24, 2011

Editorial: Deja vu on arbitration

City Council once again puts itself under time pressure in deciding whether to place repeal of binding arbitration on November ballot

There was at least some logic a year ago when the City Council voted 4-5 to punt on placing a measure on the November 2010 ballot to repeal the city's unusual 33-year-old binding-arbitration requirement whenever an impasse is declared in police or fire labor negotiations.

Last July, the proposed repeal was brought up just days before the deadline for putting the question on the November ballot, a ballot that already had the distasteful firefighters' initiative (later resoundingly defeated) requiring a city vote for any future reduction in fire staffing.

At the time, council members Sid Espinosa, Larry Klein, Nancy Shepherd, Gail Price and Yiaway Yeh voted against placing the repeal of the arbitration provision on the ballot, narrowly out-voting council members Pat Burt, Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid.

Their stated reason: The Council shouldn't feel rushed; more time was needed to study the issue and allow for more public input.

Fast-forward one full year and Monday night's City Council meeting could have been a replay of the one last July.

Price said the council was moving too fast and urged a two- to three-month period for more study and discussion. Klein repeated his 2010 criticisms of the "undemocratic" nature of binding arbitration, then added that not allowing public-safety employees to strike was also undemocratic. And Mayor Espinosa, who a year ago joined the "let's not rush" majority, this year called the referral of the issue to a council committee a "good compromise" given the split on the council.

So a year after using the argument that the council was being rushed into a decision and needed more time for analysis and discussion, four of the same five members (Espinosa, Klein, Price and Yeh; Shepherd missed Monday's meeting) could once again block voters from deciding whether to repeal binding arbitration.

Why all the angst and hand-wringing over repealing a provision in our City Charter that is so rare that only a handful of cities in California have it — and that was adopted in Palo Alto as a strategy to reduce the possibility of public-safety employee strikes before such strikes were deemed by the courts to be illegal?

None of the reluctant council members offered any substantive reasons on Monday, only general desires to not take steps that might harm city-union relations and to respect the collective bargaining process. They also declined to provide any guidance to the council's policy committee other than to return with alternatives in late July so the council could act prior to the Aug. 1 deadline for placing measures on this November's ballot.

There are many alternatives to a complete repeal of binding arbitration, including amending the charter to limit arbitration to only certain issues of disagreement; requiring that arbitrators consider certain data, such as the financial condition of the city, in making decisions; and opening up the negotiations to the public.

Insisting on an analysis of all the possible alternatives to repeal of binding arbitration is a great avoidance and delay strategy, as well as an immense burden on staff.

As we have previously argued, we believe Palo Alto voters should be given the opportunity to repeal binding arbitration. With public-employee compensation and benefits having soared in the last 30 years, rising at a faster clip than city revenues, we are living in a different era. Palo Alto should get in line with 95 percent of other cities in California.

Binding arbitration is not in itself a game-changing issue, since its use is relatively rare (approximately six times in the last 30 years). But it is fundamentally irresponsible to permit a single, unelected arbitrator to negotiate in secret and then make unilateral decisions with great financial ramifications for the city.

With four votes (Burt, Holman, Scharff and Schmid) solidly in favor of placing a repeal measure before the voters in November, only one of the other five council members must be persuaded.

Mayor Espinosa's goal for next month should not be to find a compromise that all nine council members can embrace. It should be to adopt, on a 5-4 vote if necessary, the policy that is in the best interests of the community.

With the council having referred the issue back to its policy committee, it is too late to head off a process that will entail a huge amount of unnecessary staff and council work during the next several weeks.

But let us hope that when it considers the issue again in late July, none of the five council members cites lack of information, time for analysis or need for public input as his or her excuse for preventing Palo Altans from voting in November.

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