When the City Council approved the measure last month, it did not take long for union president Tony Spitaleri to seek an injunction that would keep the measure off the ballot. But after meeting with City Attorney Molly Stump and a member of the Public Employee Relations Board last week, Spitaleri apparently came to his senses and withdrew the challenge, at least until after another meeting set for Sept. 13.
The ballot issue is controversial — passing the City Council by a 5-4 vote, but it is the city's only chance to end the union's iron grip on staffing levels in a department that desperately needs to reduce expenses. Last year consultants hired by the city said the current fire department staffing levels are arbitrary and hamper efficiency by requiring the department to always have at least 29 firefighters on duty.
Recent studies conclude that without the binding arbitration requirement, which exists in only a handful of California cities, the city could manage the department more efficiently. One consultant said that he has never encountered an organization that has "the same workload at 2 a.m. in the morning and at 2 p.m. in the afternoon." He added, that "by setting minimum staffing, you're never able to adjust your staffing to meet the demand."
The repeal of binding arbitration is only one piece of needed reforms in the operation of the fire department, and might have been avoided if firefighters had worked cooperatively to bring down department expenses in response to the city's budget challenges.
The city's other unions, including the police, offered concessions but Spitaleri and the firefighters stood alone, refusing to give an inch unless the city accepted minimum staffing levels, which forced negotiations on a new contract to impasse. Now the two sides are headed to binding arbitration.
It has been an ill-conceived strategy from the start, and it is a shame that the dedicated men and women of the department, who already receive generous wages and benefits, are dragged into this fight by union leaders.
The binding arbitration provision in the current firefighters' contract takes away the council's ability to manage the city's finances and balance its budget, since it ultimately places financial decisions in the hands of an outside arbitrator.
Prior to voting to place the question on the ballot, the council adopted a 2012 budget with a $4.3 million hole that the city hopes to fill with concessions from the public safety unions.
Local voters have already been through this obsession by firefighters to set their own staffing rules. Last November, they overwhelmingly rejected a union-backed ballot measure that would have frozen department staffing levels and forced the city to hold an election before it could close a fire station or reduce staffing. Such an arrangement would give the union extraordinary powers over management of a city department, a power-grab that voters wisely rejected.
Binding arbitration has only been used six times since it was adopted by the city, but its mere existence significantly influences how the city conducts its negotiations with firefighters and police unions.
"We really have been constrained by binding arbitration's presence because in order to avoid it we have settled for something less that where we need to be," City Council member Karen Holman said.
The November repeal measure includes a section requiring that all disputes between the city and public safety and non-public safety labor unions go to mandatory, but non-binding mediation.
If voters agree to scrap binding arbitration, the city's updated partnership with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District could ease the concerns voiced by Spitaleri that the city has already reduced department staffing to unsafe levels. In the upgraded deal the two departments agree to cover adjacent areas around Palo Alto's northern border in an automatic aid arrangement. Palo Alto will extend coverage to Bay Road in East Palo Alto and the Menlo Park district's coverage to West Bayshore, the Palo Alto Airport and the Baylands.
Whatever happens in the November election, the Palo Alto firefighters need to take on their fair share of the budgetary load that is confronting the city during this economic downturn. In our view, binding arbitration has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. This would give the city the tools it needs to manage all the public safety agencies fairly, just as they do all other bargaining units.