Editorial: Deja vu on arbitration

City Council once again puts itself under time pressure in deciding whether to place repeal of binding arbitration on November ballot

There was at least some logic a year ago when the City Council voted 4-5 to punt on placing a measure on the November 2010 ballot to repeal the city's unusual 33-year-old binding-arbitration requirement whenever an impasse is declared in police or fire labor negotiations.

Last July, the proposed repeal was brought up just days before the deadline for putting the question on the November ballot, a ballot that already had the distasteful firefighters' initiative (later resoundingly defeated) requiring a city vote for any future reduction in fire staffing.

At the time, council members Sid Espinosa, Larry Klein, Nancy Shepherd, Gail Price and Yiaway Yeh voted against placing the repeal of the arbitration provision on the ballot, narrowly out-voting council members Pat Burt, Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid.

Their stated reason: The Council shouldn't feel rushed; more time was needed to study the issue and allow for more public input.

Fast-forward one full year and Monday night's City Council meeting could have been a replay of the one last July.

Price said the council was moving too fast and urged a two- to three-month period for more study and discussion. Klein repeated his 2010 criticisms of the "undemocratic" nature of binding arbitration, then added that not allowing public-safety employees to strike was also undemocratic. And Mayor Espinosa, who a year ago joined the "let's not rush" majority, this year called the referral of the issue to a council committee a "good compromise" given the split on the council.

So a year after using the argument that the council was being rushed into a decision and needed more time for analysis and discussion, four of the same five members (Espinosa, Klein, Price and Yeh; Shepherd missed Monday's meeting) could once again block voters from deciding whether to repeal binding arbitration.

Why all the angst and hand-wringing over repealing a provision in our City Charter that is so rare that only a handful of cities in California have it -- and that was adopted in Palo Alto as a strategy to reduce the possibility of public-safety employee strikes before such strikes were deemed by the courts to be illegal?

None of the reluctant council members offered any substantive reasons on Monday, only general desires to not take steps that might harm city-union relations and to respect the collective bargaining process. They also declined to provide any guidance to the council's policy committee other than to return with alternatives in late July so the council could act prior to the Aug. 1 deadline for placing measures on this November's ballot.

There are many alternatives to a complete repeal of binding arbitration, including amending the charter to limit arbitration to only certain issues of disagreement; requiring that arbitrators consider certain data, such as the financial condition of the city, in making decisions; and opening up the negotiations to the public.

Insisting on an analysis of all the possible alternatives to repeal of binding arbitration is a great avoidance and delay strategy, as well as an immense burden on staff.

As we have previously argued, we believe Palo Alto voters should be given the opportunity to repeal binding arbitration. With public-employee compensation and benefits having soared in the last 30 years, rising at a faster clip than city revenues, we are living in a different era. Palo Alto should get in line with 95 percent of other cities in California.

Binding arbitration is not in itself a game-changing issue, since its use is relatively rare (approximately six times in the last 30 years). But it is fundamentally irresponsible to permit a single, unelected arbitrator to negotiate in secret and then make unilateral decisions with great financial ramifications for the city.

With four votes (Burt, Holman, Scharff and Schmid) solidly in favor of placing a repeal measure before the voters in November, only one of the other five council members must be persuaded.

Mayor Espinosa's goal for next month should not be to find a compromise that all nine council members can embrace. It should be to adopt, on a 5-4 vote if necessary, the policy that is in the best interests of the community.

With the council having referred the issue back to its policy committee, it is too late to head off a process that will entail a huge amount of unnecessary staff and council work during the next several weeks.

But let us hope that when it considers the issue again in late July, none of the five council members cites lack of information, time for analysis or need for public input as his or her excuse for preventing Palo Altans from voting in November.

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Like this comment
Posted by You might think different
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm

So if you want to do away with binding arbitration for public safety what alternative will they have when council members life Sharff strip away what ever they feel like. And if public safety can't strike, then why don't we make it so no one can strike, that would be fair. At least we would be on an even playing field.

The answer here is to make common sense changes to limit the items that can be arbitrated and limit the power of the arbitrator not remove it all together.

It's not the Council's fault they find themselves in the same place one year later. They didn't receive any information on the issue until last month. Nothing for 10 months, not their fualt.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 24, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Any elected official who supports binding arbitration by an unelected, unknown third party is failing in his/her responsibility to the citizens whom she/he has sworn to serve.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 24, 2011 at 3:20 pm

This is exactly how binding arbitration can doom a city:

"An arbitrator's decision is expected any day.

If the arbitrator voids the city's (Stockton) declaration or imposes a compromise the city cannot afford, and unions continue to resist, the city will face "two equally unacceptable options."

It must either slash 253 positions or declare bankruptcy."

Web Link

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Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm

The answer is to put binding arbitration on the ballot. If the ff's don't like it, they can try to find another job. Same option the rest of us have. They won't be able to find another job where they are paid nearly as well. Not to mention the ridiculouly lucrative benefits and pension. Not to mention all the time off etc.

I will campaign against any council member who opposes putting binding arbitration on the ballot.

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Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Did you notice that Spitaleri of the Firefighter's Union is not asking for an arbitrator anymore, he is now requesting a mediator!!! Is that a slight of tongue? Is a mediator legally binding? Or is this some privately negotiated compromise?

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Posted by Gordon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Since the city council apparently can't decide on this issue, please put it on the ballot so that we citizens can decide! For what it is worth, I agree with Palo Alto Online that this binding arbitration provision is a total outrage and must be removed! The fire fighter's union, in particular, needs to be put under control.

Frankly, I think we Palo Altans need to make sure we never elect Gail Price again.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 25, 2011 at 6:54 am

I see a lot of people singling out the firefighters and, honestly, I can't blame you. The question I have is, can we repeal arbitration for just the firefighters and leave the police alone or maybe just tweak it for the police? Maybe I missed something, but it seems like they have at least tried to play nice and make compromises when asked.

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Posted by Ryan
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 25, 2011 at 10:57 am

I too want to reign in overpayment of public employees and getting rid of binding arbitration is step #1.

That said, I do agree with Bob that the police have been a lot more reasonable over the years than the firefighters, and do a much more hazardous and valuable job (firefighting has grown into a much safer and easier profession over the years, police work has not, yet FF pay has not taken this into account). I don't think the police will suffer, though, if binding arbitration is removed. The public is not outraged at them, as they are the firefighters. Spitaleri and the union made this mess with their militancy and hubris (measure R), and are about to reap the backlash.

Like this comment
Posted by Koa
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 25, 2011 at 8:08 pm

This isn't a even vote to repeal binding arbitration, it's a vote to allow taxpayers to consider repealing binding arbitration.

Why on earth would any organization want to limit its own options for balancing its budget? Can you imagine the management of a public company actively fighting to prevent itself from being able make its own decisions that affect the financial well being of the company? Of course not, as they would be fired and sued for breach of fiduciary duty.

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Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 25, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Several members of the City Council are fighting to keep arbitration. It is their way of paying back the Fire-fighter's Union who contributed generously to their election campaigns. They are obviously hoping for contributions in the future for their re-election campaigns!!!

Arbitration is here to stay unless those Council members can be voted out of office.

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Posted by Michael
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 26, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Taxpayer is unfortunately correct. A good portion of our city "leaders" have been bought and paid for by Spitaleri and the public unions. They will put the good of this special interest group before the good of the city. The cycle has to be broken.

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Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Arbitration has been used 3 times in 33 years, please show me how this fact has handcuffed the City? I don't see any awarded wage formulas or rules which have precluded the City from reaching an agreement on contract talks?
The City Councils like to blame arbitration it seems when the facts show THEY agreed to past and present contracts.
Palo Alto is not paying it's police and firefighters anymore money than other cities in the area who don't have binding arbitration, they all make about exactly the same give or take a few dollars.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 26, 2011 at 5:14 pm

All the ff's in "other cities in the area" are overpaid and underworked also. The unions used the "Domino Method" and we got suckered2H1AY. Fortunately we are wiser and more engaged now. Time for:
1.) 30+% pay decreases till we get close to the national average
2.) no retirement pay out till 65
3.) cap payout at 50% of max salary (and no more faked injuries to escape paying income taxes)
4.) switch from defined benefit to defined contribution

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Posted by Fed Up Voter
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 26, 2011 at 5:21 pm

If it's so seldom used, then it shouldn't be missed. Why so much fear over letting the people decide whether to get rid of it then.

The threat of binding arbitration (which contains several anti-market provisions such as the state of city finances cannot be examined) is enough to compel the city to overpay the unions, and helped get us into this mess.

Unemployment in this state is north of 12%. Firefighters averaging 170K in total compensation is a giant waste of city wealth. Continuing to allow them to stay on the city books(in the form of defined benefit pensions that will be paid by our children) is madness. The public has had enough union giveaways by bought and paid for politicians. Price and the others who have sold out the city need to be voted our or recalled.

Like this comment
Posted by Ready to Vote
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm

To City Council- you have had a year to think about this. Time is up. Put binding arbitration on the Nov 2011 ballot NOW! Were are ready to vote.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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