Supporters and opponents of Measure R clashed Wednesday night over whether the Palo Alto initiative would ensure adequate fire protection for local residents or give the firefighters union unfair powers over the city's budget.
Measure R, which was placed on the ballot by Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, would require the City Council to hold two public hearings and hold a citywide election before it could close any local fire stations or reduce staffing levels at the Fire Department.
At a debate Wednesday night, union officials claimed that the measure would empower residents to determine their level of fire protection, while former City Council members characterized the measure as a "power grab" that would protect the Fire Department from the type of cuts other departments are asked to implement.
Former council members Dena Mossar and John Barton, who formed a group "Safe Palo Alto" to fight Measure R, faced off Wednesday against Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters union, and Alan Davis, the union's attorney, at a debate co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly and the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto.
Mossar and Barton argued throughout the debate that the firefighters' measure would diminish public safety by forcing other departments, including the Police Department, to take larger cuts.
"If we hold out one segment of the pie and say it really can't change, that means other pieces of the pie will get smaller," Barton said.
Davis rejected the pie analogy and said that the firefighters are only trying to protect existing staffing levels. He also asked the few dozen residents in attendance at the Palo Alto Art Center to imagine their local fire stations closing down. Measure R, he said, would give them the power to prevent such closures.
Spitaleri said the department has already suffered significant cuts in its command staff, which he said is now "at a very low level." The council and city officials are ignoring the firefighters' concerns about insufficient staffing, he said, and pressing the firefighters for further concessions.
Measure R, Spitaleri said, would give the citizens a greater voice in public safety.
"This is not a power grab by us," Spitaleri responded. "We are saying this is the power of citizens."
The council is in the midst of tense contract negotiations with the firefighters union, which was the only local labor group that refused to take pay cuts earlier this year to help close the city's budget deficit.
Mossar and Barton are part of a broad coalition of past and current elected officials who oppose Measure R. The City Council passed a resolution earlier this year encouraging citizens not to sign the firefighters' petition, which nevertheless received more than 6,000 signatures. The "Safe Palo Alto" campaign has raised $58,000 to fight the measure.
The group has argued that the firefighters' proposal constitutes "bad governance" by limiting the City Council's ability to pass a budget. Barton also rejected the firefighters' union's assertion that unless Palo Alto residents pass Measure R, they would not have a voice in public-safety decisions.
"The notion that you get three minutes (to speak to the City Council) and you're done simply doesn't hold water in Palo Alto," Barton said. "This is a community that likes to be involved and will be involved in every important safety issue."