Palo Alto's police officers have joined the firefighters union in opposing the city's effort to erase the binding-arbitration provision from the City Charter.
The provision, enacted by city voters in 1978, enables an arbitration panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its public-safety employees.
Members of the City Council said Monday night that arbitration panels have historically favored labor groups over the city and argued that the provision makes it impossible for the council to control the city's spiking employee costs.
The council is scheduled to vote Aug. 2 on whether to place the repeal on the November ballot.
So far, the council's discussion on binding arbitration had focused on the firefighters union, which will have its own initiative on the November ballot. The initiative, spearheaded by Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, would require the city to hold an election any time it wants to reduce the staffing level in the Fire Department or close a fire station.
On Monday night, the attorney for the Palo Alto Police Officers' Association (PAPOA) submitted a letter to City Manager James Keene stating the union's opposition to the proposed measure and calling the city's attack on binding arbitration "misguided."
Rockne A. Lucia Jr., of Rains Lucia Stern, PC, criticized the city for not consulting with the police union before launching into a discussion of binding arbitration.
"Given the Association's demonstrated willingness to work in unison with City leaders, the current discussions concerning the repeal of binding arbitration are simply unfathomable," Lucia wrote.
Sgt. Wayne Benitez, president of PAPOA, said the union didn't want to get involved in the ongoing dispute between the council and the firefighters union. In recent months, the council criticized the firefighters union for refusing to make concessions to help the city close its projected fiscal year 2010 deficit.
The police union, by contrast, offered to defer its negotiated 6 percent raise for two years in a row.
"The city forced us into making a decision and our decision is to fight this," Benitez told the Weekly Monday.
The council Monday night couldn't reach a firm decision on whether to place the repeal on the November ballot, with several members indicating that they need more information.
Councilwoman Gail Price said she opposes the measure to eliminate binding arbitration, while Councilman Greg Scharff said he strongly supports it. Councilman Larry Klein said he opposed binding arbitration, but said it might be better to wait a little longer before placing the issue in front of the voters.
Scharff called repealing binding arbitration "the single biggest thing we can do to control our runaway pension costs and to get our labor costs under control.
"As a city, we try to achieve equity for our employee groups," Scharff said. "To achieve that, we need to remove binding arbitration from our charter."
Price said the city is moving too fast on what would be a very significant change. She said the city's rush to change the charter makes it seem as if the proposed repeal is "retribution for the firefighter's initiative." She also said she is worried about the "ricochet impact," as it relates to the police officers.
"The speed in which we're moving and discussing this causes me great concern," Price said.
Attorney Alan C. Davis, writing at the request of the recently formed Palo Alto Police Managers Association, stating that members of the managers association "do not understand why there has been any interest in repealing the provisions of Article V of the Palo Alto City Charter which applies to represented police officers as well as to firefighters."
He said the association "is aware of the anger engendered among some members of the City Council regarding the staffing initiative measure sponsored by friends of the Palo Alto Firefighters Union," Davis wrote. "The Palo Alto Police Managers Association has not endorsed and is not involved in that initiative measure."
Davis said the council has a legal obligation to confer with the union before discussing binding arbitration and urged the council not to repeal the provision.
Councilman Sid Espinosa said the proposed repeal is not an effort to get back at the firefighters union but the beginning of an important conversation about the city's process for negotiations with its labor groups.
"This is not an issue of retribution," Espinosa said. "It's not tied to the initiative that was put on the ballot."
Klein said the binding-arbitration provision is "undemocratic."
"It takes the decision out of the hands of the people's elected representatives and passes it to someone who no one in Palo Alto may know and who has no responsibility to the people in Palo Alto," Klein said. "This person may impose a decision on us that the community can't live with.
"That's a power I don't like."
Benitez disputed the city's claim that binding arbitration is driving up employee costs. The last time the city and the police unions went to arbitration was about 15 years ago, and the city prevailed, Benitez said.
Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, also wrote a letter to Keene saying that arbitration measures "have unfairly become a whipping boy because of concerns the City of Palo Alto and other municipalities have over financial constraints imposed by the ongoing recession."
Lucia, who represents PAPOA, asked the city officials to take no action on binding arbitration. If the city proceeds to place the measure on the ballot without properly notifying the union, PAPOA could sue the city for its failure to "meet and confer" with the police union before considering binding arbitration, he wrote.
"The Association remains a willing partner in addressing the City's current economic condition, and is prepared to continue working in a cooperative effort with the city on any matter of mutual concern," Lucia wrote.
"However, given the significance of the discussion scheduled for this evening's council meeting, and the city's failure to initiate any communication on this subject with the Association, the Palo Alto Police Officers' Association cannot stand idly should the City continue to neglect its obligations under state law.
"In the event that the city fails to comply with this request, please know that the Association is prepared to seek the assistance of the courts to enforce its rights under the law."
Palo Alto City Attorney Gary Baum said Monday night that the city isn't legally required to meet and confer with the unions on this subject.