Palo Alto struggles to reach decision on arbitration

City Council committee splits on whether to repeal provision from the City Charter

Palo Alto's debate over whether to strike the binding-arbitration requirement for police and firefighters from the City Charter could drag on at least until next year because of deadlock on the City Council committee charged with examining the issue.

The council's Policy and Services Committee split on Tuesday night over whether a repeal of the binding-arbitration provision should be brought to the voters in November. The provision empowers a three-member panel of arbitrators to settle labor disputes between the city's management and its public-safety unions.

The council barely avoided putting the repeal on the November 2010 ballot after several members said they need more time to study the issue. The council voted 4-5 last August to defer putting the item on the ballot until they explored the subject further.

Ten months and a stack of staff reports later, little has changed. Committee Chair Gail Price on Tuesday said she would be open to some changes in the city's binding-arbitration process but said she would oppose a repeal of the provision.

"People act as if there's been an abuse of this particular option," Price said. "I personally don't believe there has.

"I feel it would be inappropriate for us to take a ballot measure to the voters to repeal binding arbitration from our charter."

Councilman Larry Klein said he remains ambivalent over whether to repeal or amend the statute. Council members Karen Holman and Pat Burt, both of whom voted last year to send the repeal to the voters, reaffirmed their support for scrapping the provision. Though Burt criticized the policy, he noted that public-safety workers (unlike other city employees) are barred by law from striking.

Given the split, the council committee opted not to issue any recommendations and to refer the issue back to the full council.

Holman called binding arbitration an "issue of accountability and responsibility" and said the present system keeps the council from performing its duty to manage the city's finances. The process also creates a system in which some city employees are more protected than others from the types of changes the city is forced to make during times of lean budgets and reduced revenues.

"I think we need to move forward to eliminate binding-interest arbitration," Holman said.

Price suggested holding another study session on the item, followed by another meeting in which the council would settle the issue. But her colleagues on the committee agreed the issue has been discussed enough and that it's time to act. Burt recalled last year's discussion, in which several council members said they were interested in addressing the issue but felt they needed more time.

"Here we are a year later and we'll hear, prospectively, that we'll need more time," Burt said. "It's like déjà vu all over again.

"I frankly think we need to present something to the voters and allow them to decide."

Palo Alto is one of several cities in Santa Clara County that has been contemplating changes to its binding-arbitration laws for public-safety employees. Stockton and Vallejo recently eliminated their binding-arbitration requirements, while San Jose modified its ordinance to give a retired judge the power to settle disputes between the city and its public-safety unions. Palo Alto, Gilroy and San Jose are currently the only cities in the county with a binding-arbitration requirement.

Statewide, 23 out of 482 cities have such provisions, City Manager James Keene told the committee.

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Like this comment
Posted by let the people decide
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 11:22 am

Why does the council study for years putting the arbitration option before the voters. They are saying trust us we know better. Granted public safety employees cannot strike, but they can and do lobby the elected officials that negiotiate with them. The council's unwillingness to put this issue to the voters speaks to the effectiveness of the political clout of the public safety unions. When put before the vote, we might agree that arbitration is still the way to go, but let the voters decide.

Like this comment
Posted by Barron Parker
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 9, 2011 at 11:54 am

A year of study is enough. Actually, it's too much. Further delay for making a decision is, de facto, making a decision not to repeal binding arbitration, which greatly empowers the unions and weakens the City Council and the rest of us. Less than 5 percent of the cities in California allow binding arbitration.

It appears that Gail Price, who floated in on union dollars, is most responsible for blocking the repeal. She surely knows how the voters feel about the behavior of the Fire Department union, as shown by the 75% vote to reject their power-grabbing ballot initiative a few months ago. If put to a vote, we will, in a comparable landslide, remove binding arbitration, which is a process gamed to favor the unions.

The City Council needs to stand up, say Enough!, and either repeal binding arbitration or let us do it in November.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 9, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Have to agree with Barron Parker. This is Price's way of paying back the union for their financial support. I recommend the citizen's of Palo Alto do two things:
1.) contact your elected reps and tell them you want binding arbitration put up for a vote
2.) remember where Price's loyalties lie and make sure she is not re-elected

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Gail Price doesn't want the arbitration clause to go before the voters because it might pass. Since it might pass, the unions are lobbying her to not allow it to go before the voters. So that makes it inappropriate. Some logic.

Her election to city council can go before the voters but heaven forbid the voters from actually do something fiscally responsible which Gail Price is too afraid to do.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Gail Price is indeed beholding to the unions. This is common knowledge. They strongly backed her in her election, and any "city-politics watcher" could see this one coming a mile off. She should be voted off the council at the next opportunity. Enough already. This arbitration issue needs to go to the full council and the voters - now.

Like this comment
Posted by Antonio
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm

This is an absolute no-brainer. Gail Price (and the others who are ignoring the people's will) needs to do their job and represent the people, or be voted out of office.

We're tired of overpaying our public employees. Binding arbitration is one of the culprits, so lets remove it. If I would personally rather see privatization as much as possible, as the private sector could bring market level compensation and some badly needed efficiency to our government. Paying over 200K per firefighter in total compensation, for a department that is overstaffed due to union rules is a waste of money.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 9, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Any elected official who supports allowing a non-elected arbitrator to make binding decisions on his/her behalf should resign from office or be recalled. They were elected to make decisions not to wash their hands of that responsibility.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Ditto all the comments about Gail being a puppet of the unions.

Watch Gail next year push for a bond issue for this or that, pleading city is out of money, when she refused to do the fiscally responsible action.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Binding arbitration (for the fire dept.) has been used 2 times in the last 25+ years that it has been in place. The arbitrator sided with the city once and once with the fire dept.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Doesn't matter that it wasn't used more than twice. The threat of a union-leaning arbitration process is a powerful tool for the firefighters in negotiations. This is a major contributor to our current mess in which our fire department is overstaffed, overpaid, and inefficient.

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Besides, if it is seldom used, it won't be missed if we strike it from the books.

Like this comment
Posted by DeAngelo
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Well said Me Too.

We need to go beyond stripping binding arbitration and look to consolidation or privatization. The private sector, which is always under pressure to increase productivity (how many of you taxpayers work anything close to resembling the 40 hour work weeks enjoyed by our public servants) doesn't write six figure pension checks starting at age 55 to its workers, and neither should the taxpaying public, or, as it is shaping up, our kids and grandkids.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

And what is Klein's problem? According to the news story, he is "ambivalent".
He's a lawyer, ferpetesake, and he is trained to 'make up his mind'. He should not take political refuge in 'ambivalent'. His wishy-washiness is as bad as Price's - but at least we know what side she is on. The council is supposed to be made of civic leaders. What a joke. The majority sided with Drekmeier and company for a single issue election re: the Baylands which is costing the city $350,000.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Currently we have folks like Price who allow huge pension liabilities to accumulate unfunded. She and her colleagues leave office and future generations will end up being responsible for the mess. I think the SJ mayor is trying to change their pension system to a "pay as you go" defined contribution approach. Unfortunately it appears citizens are stuck with the liability from previous years (unless there is a bankruptcy) but (using Reed's plan) the future exposure can be mitigated.

Repealing binding arbitration is a good first step, but there is a huge amoung of work to do to correct this mess.

Like this comment
Posted by debt limits
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

Palo Alto should incorporate a debt limit. Any increase requiring a 2/3 majority to change.

Like this comment
Posted by The Public Fisc
a resident of another community
on Jun 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm

The only way to solve Palo Alto's fiscal woes is to elect people like Diana Diamond and pat. They will just say no to spending any public money for any reason.

Sure, they may often be highly negative. They may not really be qualified. So what? They will be sure to vote no every single time they are asked to approve any City of Palo Alto spending, no matter what.

Elect Diana and pat!

Like this comment
Posted by South PA Resident
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm

When Gail Price ran for City Council a school district parent approached me and asked if I was voting for Gail Price for City Council because in her opinion Gail and screwed up many of the decision of the School Board.

This is a lady who is so obviously beholden to the Unions because of financial contributions they gave her election campaign. She isn't even subtle about it. The irony of this is that Gail Price would have got elected anyway without the Unions' help

Put the arbitration issue on the ballot; Palo Alto residents are smart enough to know how to vote without being manipulated by Ms. Price.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm

@Bob from community center - Larry Klein last voted to raise the pension benefits back in 2006 - that's why he's ambivalent. It's costing the city budget $5+ million per year to service the increase in pension benefits. Then the following years he goes to the voters for the library bond. Next year, Klein will pushing for a bond to pave the streets, etc. But they won't touch the spending on the "pet projects", like the assistant city manager for the environment, the subsidy for the children's theater, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm


Don't forget that public servants are tax payers too!

The general public don't realize that public safety employees are not eligible for social security. And yes, social security is majorly unfunded too, so lets make EVERYONE pay more into social security! Oh wait, you don't like that idea?? As long as it doesn't affect you? Either man up or stop being a hypocrite and shut up.

Like this comment
Posted by DeAngelo
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 12, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Greg, nobody ever said public workers don't pay taxes. The fact that public workers pay some of their income back into the system in taxes in now way incentivizes them to self-regulate their dining at the taxpayer trough, as you would imply.

What affects me is my tax dollars underwriting out of market compensation and lavish retirement and health benefits to a public sector that is bloated and inefficient, and public sector unions who fights any for of accountability, competition or anything that threatens its place at the trough.

And you propose I pay more to shore up my own social security. Sounds reasonable. You've done nothing to justify what you really want, which is me to continue writing checks to pay for your bloated retirement.

Soldiers; actual heroes; get 40% of a base pay that nobody considers bloated after a career in the military. That should be the public sector cap, at least until we can implement something approaching a meritocracy.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 13, 2011 at 12:32 pm


Nice succinct, coherent reply to Greg's rant.

I agree with your 40% cap on pension payout. But I would add that we should be working:
1. to change to a defined contribution system
2.) to increase the retirement start payout age for public workers to the same as the private sector. No problem if they want to quit at 50 etc, but the pension should start paying out at the same age as the rest of us. They might have to find another job for a few years. Oh my, just like we do.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 13, 2011 at 7:46 pm

To DeAngelo,

Tell the familes of the SF firefighters that die last week, that they were not "actual heroes"!!!!
Your pathetic to make a statment like that.

Like this comment
Posted by DeAngelo
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 13, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Well said Taxpayer. Much agreement on point 2.

And the FF's who died in the SF fire did indeed act heroically, and I have no problem with paying generous benefits to the families of any safety worker killed in the line of duty.

Using the heroic actions of a few, however, in a job that is statistically much safer than police work, construction, mining, or even farm work, to justify overpaying every firefighter, is a stunt that will no longer fly. It's cheap politicization of a tragedy. Do the cowardly firefighters from Alameda who cowered on the beach for nearly an hour and hid behind union "regulations" while a man froze to death and drownned in chest deep water deserve "hero" status as well? They should be fired for incompetence, which is something the bloated public sector is remarkably incapable of doing.

I work with a lot of former soldiers. Never once have I heard one market themself as a hero. Firefighters, on the other hand, will play the hero card at any opportunity. When that doesn't work, the argument becomes typically degenerates into fear-mongering("you better hope your house doesn't catch fire").

This great giveaway has to stop. I don't want my kids paying the bill for our inaction today.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Sorry Jim but I don't share your opinion that ff's are any more heroes than other professions, even in they occasionally (very rarely) die on the job. Many profeessions have a much higher injury/mortality rate. I'd like to see the families of all these professions treated the same. I rank folks in the military much higher than ff's on the hero scale.

For the most part ff's are overpaid, underworked, union militants trying to manipulate the system to take more of the tax revenues for their personal gain. I am sick of it and will work hard to restore balance in the system that significantly reduces the union influence on politicians.

Like this comment
Posted by Liz
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 13, 2011 at 9:45 pm

I soon as the "dot com" comes back, no one will care anymore and raises, along with pensions will go back up. Look what happen in Palo Alto a few years back- couldn't keep the police from leaving, until they were given a 30% raise in one year! There still giving raises to Firefighters in other cities. It will all come around full circle. It always does. I should of taken that public service job years ago.

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