Palo Alto's drawn-out debate over whether to change or scrap the binding-arbitration provision from the City Charter could finally get settled tonight, when the City Council considers giving the voters a say on the matter.
The council had considered putting the repeal of binding arbitration on the November 2010 ballot but balked after several members said they need more time to study the issue further. The proposal by Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman to put the item on the ballot fizzled last August on a 4-5 vote.
The 33-year-old provision enables a three-member arbitration panel to resolve contract disputes between city management and Palo Alto's public-safety unions. The city and its firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, 1319, have been at an impasse over a new contract since February and are preparing for arbitration this fall.
Proponents of the repeal, including Scharff and Holman, have consistently argued that the provision is undemocratic because it takes major budget decisions away from elected officials and places them in the hands of a panel few in the city know anything about.
Others, including union leaders and Councilwoman Gail Price, maintained that the provision has been rarely used and should not be repealed.
The provision is relatively rare among California cities. According to a new report from the Human Resources department, 22 out of 120 charter cities in California currently have such provisions. Voters in Vallejo and Stockton repealed their cities' binding-arbitration provisions last year, while their counterparts in San Luis Obispo will vote on a repeal in August. San Jose modified its provision last year to give a retired judge the power to settle labor disputes.
In Palo Alto, policy makers have made little headway since last year in deciding whether to give the voters a say on binding arbitration. On June 7, the council's Policy and Services Committee deadlocked on the issue (with Holman and Pat Burt supporting a ballot measure to repeal the provision and Price and Larry Klein dissenting).
At that meeting, Holman called the binding-arbitration process "expensive and time intensive" while Burt argued that it's time to let the voters have their say.
"I frankly think we need to present something to the voters and allow them to decide," Burt said.
Price said it would be "inappropriate" for the council to place a repeal on the ballot, but said she could support some modifications to the existing provision. This includes creating a new timeline for labor negotiations that would link them to the city's budget schedule.
Klein said he opposes the provision but said he remained "torn" about repealing it. The issue, he said, is one of fairness to employees. Unlike most city workers, firefighters and police officers are barred by law from striking. He said the city should consider ways to protect these employees' interests before it decides to remove the binding-arbitration provision.
"I think we should take the time to do it right," Klein said.
The council meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.