Palo Alto struggles to reach decision on arbitration
City Council committee splits on whether to repeal provision from the City Charter
Palo Alto's debate over whether to strike the binding-arbitration requirement for police and firefighters from the City Charter could drag on at least until next year because of deadlock on the City Council committee charged with examining the issue.
The council's Policy and Services Committee split on Tuesday night over whether a repeal of the binding-arbitration provision should be brought to the voters in November. The provision empowers a three-member panel of arbitrators to settle labor disputes between the city's management and its public-safety unions.
The council barely avoided putting the repeal on the November 2010 ballot after several members said they need more time to study the issue. The council voted 4-5 last August to defer putting the item on the ballot until they explored the subject further.
Ten months and a stack of staff reports later, little has changed. Committee Chair Gail Price on Tuesday said she would be open to some changes in the city's binding-arbitration process but said she would oppose a repeal of the provision.
"People act as if there's been an abuse of this particular option," Price said. "I personally don't believe there has.
"I feel it would be inappropriate for us to take a ballot measure to the voters to repeal binding arbitration from our charter."
Councilman Larry Klein said he remains ambivalent over whether to repeal or amend the statute. Council members Karen Holman and Pat Burt, both of whom voted last year to send the repeal to the voters, reaffirmed their support for scrapping the provision. Though Burt criticized the policy, he noted that public-safety workers (unlike other city employees) are barred by law from striking.
Given the split, the council committee opted not to issue any recommendations and to refer the issue back to the full council.
Holman called binding arbitration an "issue of accountability and responsibility" and said the present system keeps the council from performing its duty to manage the city's finances. The process also creates a system in which some city employees are more protected than others from the types of changes the city is forced to make during times of lean budgets and reduced revenues.
"I think we need to move forward to eliminate binding-interest arbitration," Holman said.
Price suggested holding another study session on the item, followed by another meeting in which the council would settle the issue. But her colleagues on the committee agreed the issue has been discussed enough and that it's time to act. Burt recalled last year's discussion, in which several council members said they were interested in addressing the issue but felt they needed more time.
"Here we are a year later and we'll hear, prospectively, that we'll need more time," Burt said. "It's like déjà vu all over again.
"I frankly think we need to present something to the voters and allow them to decide."
Palo Alto is one of several cities in Santa Clara County that has been contemplating changes to its binding-arbitration laws for public-safety employees. Stockton and Vallejo recently eliminated their binding-arbitration requirements, while San Jose modified its ordinance to give a retired judge the power to settle disputes between the city and its public-safety unions. Palo Alto, Gilroy and San Jose are currently the only cities in the county with a binding-arbitration requirement.
Statewide, 23 out of 482 cities have such provisions, City Manager James Keene told the committee.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.