Political establishment split over labor measure
Current and former City Council members at odds over proposed repeal of binding arbitration for police, firefighters
When Palo Alto's firefighters spearheaded a ballot measure last year that sought to freeze staffing levels in the Fire Department, former Councilman John Barton was in the forefront of the opposition.
Barton, whose term ended in 2008 and who chose not to run again, took part in a debate against union President Tony Spitaleri and co-founded a group of former elected officials to fight the ballot measure. The voters ultimately handed Measure R an overwhelming defeat.
This year, however, Barton and Spitaleri find themselves on the same side of another election debate involving firefighters. The City Council voted in July to place on the November ballot a measure that would repeal the binding-arbitration provision in the City Charter. The provision, which has been in place since 1978, empowers a three-member panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its public-safety unions.
In placing the measure on the ballot, four council members — Karen Holman, Greg Scharff, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid — have argued that the provision is undemocratic because it strips the council of its power to balance the city budget. But Barton, who last year called the firefighter measure a "power grab," now applies the term to the council.
Voters adopted binding arbitration in 1978 to prevent police and fire unions from striking. State law has since made it illegal for these units to strike.
"If we take away binding arbitration and combine it with the fact that firefighters and police officers don't have a right to strike — you've essentially gutted their union," Barton told the Weekly.
Barton isn't the only current or former elected official to oppose Measure D, the proposal to repeal binding arbitration. Former Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell has also signed the argument opposing Measure D, as have current Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Councilwoman Gail Price, the council's most outspoken critic of the repeal effort.
Other council members, including Larry Klein and Nancy Shepherd, supported modifying rather than repealing the existing binding-arbitration provision. Their proposal fell one vote short of adoption.
The decision by Barton and Cordell to join the election fray illustrates a major difference between last year's ballot measure and the one voters are being asked to consider on Nov. 8. Last year, the city's political establishment was united in opposing Measure R, which would have required the city to hold an election before it could reduce staffing levels in the Fire Department or close a fire station. This year, Palo Alto's elected officials and their predecessors are almost evenly split over the merits of the repeal.
The council placed the measure on the ballot through a 5-4 vote, with Yeh giving the four critics of binding arbitration the bare majority they needed. Yeh said he wanted to give the voters a clear say on the issue even though he personally opposes the repeal.
Other former elected officials have joined the council majority. Lanie Wheeler and Yoriko Kishimoto, both former mayors, have signed on to the argument in support of the repeal.
Kishimoto cited the growing expenditures in the Fire Department as the main reason for her supporting the repeal measure. According to the city's 2010 Service Efforts and Accomplishments report, total Fire Department spending increased by 37 percent between fiscal years 2006 and 2010.
Repealing the binding-arbitration provision, Kishimoto said, is one way to encourage the department to bring down its costs.
"There is a structural impediment to the firefighters getting the incentive to look at innovations in service delivery and cost cutting as the other departments have been forced to do," Kishimoto told the Weekly.
The official argument in favor of Measure D largely reiterates many of the points that Holman, Scharff, Burt and Schmid have made over the past year — namely that repeal of binding arbitration is necessary to ensure that all labor groups contribute in cutting down employee costs during the ongoing economic downturn.
"While City policy is for fairness across employee groups, binding arbitration for public-safety unions has prevented the City from ensuring equitable reforms across employee groups and balancing the budget," the pro-Measure D argument states.
Proponents of the repeal also note in the argument that the city's current budget assumes $4.3 million in salary and benefit reductions from the police and firefighter unions.
"Without these concessions the City may be forced to cut police staff, reducing vital emergency services," the argument states. "Alternately, the city may need to cut public services including streets, parks and libraries."
Opponents of Measure D counter in their official argument that the binding-arbitration provision has a "proven track record that works." The provision has been used six times, with each side scoring several victories. But the arbitrators had also rebuffed the city's earlier efforts to change the pension formula — a major driver in the recent escalation of employee costs.
The argument against Measure D notes that arbitrators are already required to take into account the city's financial position before making a ruling.
The provision, encoded in Article V of the City Charter, calls for the arbitrators to consider the final offer from each side and then select that one that "most nearly conforms with those factors traditionally taken into consideration" in setting compensation. These factors include the average consumer price index for goods and services, other employees' conditions of employment and "the financial condition of the city and its ability to meet the cost of the award."
"Binding arbitration, in the rare occasions it has been used since 1978, has proven to be a fair resolution process for the City, police and firefighters," the argument states. "Join respected city leaders and citizens for a fair process and Vote No on repeal of binding-interest arbitration."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.