Measure D foes clash over 'fairness' in Palo Alto
In debate over labor reform, both sides say they're trying to be fair to city workers
The two sides in Palo Alto's heated debate over labor reform have one thing in common — each claims it is fighting to preserve fairness toward city employees.
That was the argument both sides in the Measure D debate made during Tuesday night's well-attended forum at City Hall on the ballot measure, which would end the city's 34-year-old tradition of sending disputes between management and public-safety workers to binding arbitration. While proponents of the repeal argued that removing binding arbitration from the city charter would reduce public-safety expenditures and allow Palo Alto to preserve jobs and city services, opponents characterized the repeal as an attack on the labor rights of Palo Alto's police and firefighters.
The debate, which was organized by the Palo Alto chapter of the League of Women Voters, pitted the council's two leading proponents of Measure D, Greg Scharff and Karen Holman, against Councilwoman Gail Price and attorney Richard Alexander. Each side claimed it's trying to be fair to the workers, though each had a different set of workers in mind.
Scharff and Holman both pointed to the city's spiking public-safety expenditures, which Scharff said rose by about 80 percent over the past decade even as spending in other departments remained relatively flat. They both blamed binding arbitration for hindering the council's ability to make needed changes in firefighter and police contracts. The arbitrators, Scharff noted, have twice turned down the city's attempts at pension reform for firefighters, including an attempt to create a second pension tier for new employees and an attempt to base pension payments on the average of three highest-paid years, rather than on the highest year.
"Binding arbitration takes local control away from Palo Alto and vests it in a single person with no accountability to citizens of Palo Alto or anyone else," Scharff said during the debate.
Scharff and Holman both said the city's increasing expenditures on public safety mean it has less money for other city services. Voting to repeal the provision, Scharff said, would be a vote to "protect the value of public services, including funding for parks, streets, libraries and social services."
Holman agreed and called binding arbitration "a legacy we cannot sustain."
"Solving this dilemma will have to be borne by other worker groups such as the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) through additional concessions or lost jobs or by the public in reduced city services," Holman said.
Opponents of Measure D rejected this argument and said the measure has nothing to do with pensions and everything to do with conflict resolution. Unlike almost all other workers (with some exceptions for "essential" workers in Utilities and Public Works departments), police officers and firefighters are barred from striking by state law. Price and Alexander both said binding arbitration gives these employees another option for negotiating with the city.
"The inability of police and firefighters to strike means there needs to be a reasonable process for dispute resolution," Alexander said. "That's what this is all about."
Price also argued that Measure D isn't about cutting costs but about "values relating to treating employees fairly."
"The City of Palo Alto has a long history as a fair and reasonable employer," Price said. "Binding arbitration is a key part of that legacy. It's part of the collective bargaining process."
Both Price and Alexander likened the drive to repeal binding arbitration to the recent effort by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for state employees.
"It's my concern if we go down this erosion path, we'll become like Wisconsin and other entities like that," Price said. "This is very, very disturbing."
Scharff and Holman repeatedly noted that 95 percent of the municipalities don't have binding-arbitration provisions — a fact that doesn't stop them from reaching agreements with the police and firefighters.
The debate came just weeks after the city and the firefighters union reached a contract agreement following a 16-month standoff and a declared "impasse." Scharff said the union ultimately agreed to new terms, which include a second pension tier and elimination of the minimum-staffing provision in the contract, out of concern that voters will repeal binding arbitration.
The council decided to place Measure D on the ballot in July after a nearly two-year debate and disagreement over whether the provision should be eliminated altogether or modified. The council ultimately decided by a 5-4 vote, with Price, Mayor Sid Espinosa, Nancy Shepherd and Larry Klein dissenting, to place the repeal measure on the November ballot. Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid joined Scharff and Holman in favor.
More than 100 residents packed into the Council Chambers Tuesday to watch the debates on Measure D and Measure E, a proposal to "undedicate" a 10-acre site at Byxbee Park in the Baylands to allow construction of a waste-to-energy facility.
Much like Measure D, Measure E has polarized the City Council, with some members saying the parkland should remain such and others pointing to the new facility as a possible solution to the city's composting dilemma. Palo Alto's landfill at Byxbee Park closed for good in July, putting an end to the city's composting operation and prompting the city to truck its yard waste to Gilroy.
A group of environmentalists, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and Walt Hays, is proposing building an anaerobic-digestion facility capable of processing local food scraps, yard trimmings and sewage sludge next to the waste-water treatment plant in the Baylands.
Drekmeier and Hays squared off Tuesday against former Councilmember Emily Renzel and Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. Both Renzel and Kleinhaus argued that undedicating parkland would set a bad precedent and that the proposed plant would have an adverse impact on the surrounding parkland.
"We should not undedicate parkland as a blank check for future unknown technologies," Renzel said. "Once undedicated, parkland is gone forever, and you will have little to say about how it's being used."
Hays and Drekmeier countered that the parcel in question comprises just 8 percent of Byxbee Park and that the measure, while allowing the land to be used for a waste-to-energy facility, doesn't require the construction of such a facility if it doesn't prove to be financially viable. Drekmeier said such a plant would also generate enough energy to power 1,400 homes.
"This 10 acres is a quarter of 1 percent of Palo Alto's parkland that can help us be sustainable when it comes to waste processing and generating renewable energy," Drekmeier said.
Tuesday's debate was co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly, Palo Alto Online and Midpeninsula Community Media Center. Other co-sponsors include Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Palo Alto branch of AAUW and Avenidas Senior Center. The debate video will be available at communitymediacenter.net.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.