Palo Alto voters to rule on election years, firefighter staffing
City Council places both measures on November ballot, avoids binding-arbitration repeal for now
Palo Alto voters will decide in November whether the city should freeze staffing levels in the Fire Department and switch to even-numbered years for local elections, but they will not have a chance to repeal the binding-arbitration provision from the City Charter.
The City Council voted 5-4 on Monday night to place a measure on the November ballot that would switch the city's elections from odd years to even years. The election-year issue will be one of two measures on the November ballot. The other ballot measure, pushed by the local firefighters union, would require the city to hold an election any time the council wants to close a fire station or change staffing levels in the Fire Department.
The proposal to reconsider Palo Alto's election years split the council before eking out a bare majority of support. The switch from odd to even years was proposed by Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, a former Palo Alto mayor who promoted it as a way to both save the city $200,000 every other year and to raise voter turnout.
"There's no question the voter turnout is better in even years," Kniss told the council Monday.
Council members Karen Holman and Greg Scharff were the most fervent supporters of asking the voters to consider the election-year change this November — a proposal would add a year to each council member's term. Holman said making the switch to even years would help council candidates get the attention of the city's voters, which she said is often difficult in odd-numbered years.
Scharff said most communities already have even-year elections and that Palo Alto should join them and, in doing so, raise its voter participation.
"We're saving money and increasing voter participation," Scharff said. "It seems to me those are two positive goals."
Gail Price, Yiaway Yeh and Nancy Shepherd joined Holman and Scharff in supporting the ballot measure. Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilmen Greg Schmid and Larry Klein dissented.
Klein said the city should gather more information and consider other implications of making the switch, including its impact on the school-district measures and elections.
Klein also said the city's tradition of having elections in odd years allows voters to focus on local elections and not be distracted by state and national issues.
"It enables our community, our voters, to have a community discussion about where they want the city to go," Klein said. "That's implemented in who they vote for in the council elections.
"The attention certainly will not be paid if the council is one of 10 or 15 elections that will be held in an even-numbered year."
City staff indicated savings from even-year elections would have a range but be less than the $200,000 estimate by Kniss. Some council members expressed concern about potential extra costs to the Palo Alto Unified School District and Foothill-De Anza Community College District should they keep their elections in odd years.
The council also voted 5-4 not to put the binding-arbitration provision on the ballot. The provision, which city voters adopted in 1978, enables an arbitration panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its public-safety unions.
Though most council members said they oppose binding arbitration, the proposal to bring the issue up for a vote this year fizzled after Klein said the city needs more time to gather community input.
He also said he would be interested in exploring a measure that would keep binding arbitration in place for the two police unions, but remove the provision for the firefighters union.
"There have been no hearings, no considerations of alternatives," he added. "We ought to have opportunities to consider them."
Klein joined Price, Shepherd, Espinosa and Yeh and voted to keep a binding-arbitration measure off this year's ballot.
Proponents of the repeal argued that the provision is costly and anti-democratic. Scharff and Holman both urged their colleagues to place repeal on the ballot. Scharff said the provision makes it impossible for the city to control the city's spiking pension costs or make structural changes to employee contracts.
He called putting binding arbitration on the November ballot a "no-brainer" decision and said the time to repeal the provision is now.
"If you're really seeking structural change, and you really care about getting pensions under control, and you really care about fiscal sustainability, you need to get rid of binding arbitration."
Holman said the tough financial climate calls for political leadership and repealing binding arbitration is the boldest action the council could take at this time.
"Binding arbitration is one of the more significant aspects of how the city does or does not have control of its own destiny," she said.
Holman said the council's proposal to repeal arbitration is not an act of retaliation against the firefighter's union, which will have its own measure on the November ballot. The initiative, spearheaded by Palo Alto Firefighters, Local 1319, would require the city to hold an election any time it wants to close a fire station or change department staffing levels.
The union received more than 6,000 signatures for the ballot initiative, more than enough to qualify it for the ballot. The council on Monday officially placed the measure on the November ballot, with several members saying they fiercely oppose the proposal.
Scharff called the firefighters' initiative "amazingly selfish," while Burt called it a "misguided attempt at a power play by the Fire Department."
Though the council ultimately rejected Scharff's and Holman's proposal to include binding arbitration on the November ballot, members agreed the issue deserves further discussion and possible inclusion on a future ballot.
Staff is scheduled to bring back a timeline for these discussions in the fall.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.