Palo Alto's proposal to repeal the binding-arbitration provision in the City Charter died Monday night when the City Council voted 5-4 to scrap its plan to place the issue on the November ballot.
The provision, which city voters adopted in 1978, enables a three-member arbitration panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its police officers and firefighters. Council members have maintained over the past month that the provision handcuffs the city in its negotiations with the public-safety unions, with several members arguing that the measure should be dropped from the City Charter.
But on Monday night, a proposal to let the voters rule on binding arbitration in November died by one vote, with only Mayor Pat Burt and council members Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid favoring it.
Though most council members agreed that the provision needs to be reexamined, a few felt they need to study the issue further before sending it to voters. Councilman Larry Klein said he opposed binding arbitration but the council shouldn't rush to place the item on the ballot.
Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd both said they shared Klein's sentiments and voted against sending the issue to the voters this year.
"The community is not fully informed on this issue," Klein said. "We have not heard from any of the community organizations we normally listen to."
"There have been no hearings, no considerations of alternatives," he added. "We ought to have opportunities to consider them."
Gail Price and Yiaway Yeh also voted against placing the repeal of binding arbitration on the 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. saying the provision makes it impossible for the city to control the city's spiking pension costs or make structural changes to employee contracts.
Scharff 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 if 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."
The council's proposal to repeal binding arbitration also drew vehement opposition from the city's police officers, whose recent negotiations with the city have been much more conciliatory than those of the firefighters' union.
Sgt. Wayne Benitez, president of Palo Alto Police Officers Association, told the council Monday night that the union has made a great effort in recent years to stay away from politics and to negotiate with the city in good faith.
He said the police union relied on binding arbitration in its negotiations with the city only three times since the voters adopted the provision.
Holman called the repeal proposal's potential effect on the police union an "unfortunate happenstance" in the binding-arbitration debate.
"I am saddened that this consideration of binding arbitration does include and will include the police union," Holman said.
Though the council ultimately rejected Scharff's and Holman's proposal to place the matter 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.