Palo Alto close to decision on binding arbitration

City Council to consider Monday whether to put reform or repeal of 1978 labor law on November ballot

Palo Alto's November ballot could expand Monday night when the City Council decides whether to give the voters a say on changing or repealing the city's binding-arbitration provision.

The council, which has been discussing the topic for more than a year, will have at least three options to choose from at its next meeting. Council members could choose to keep things the way they are, as they did last summer when a proposal to put a repeal on the ballot died by a 4-5 vote.

They could follow the recent examples of Stockton and Vallejo and strike the provision, which enables arbitrators to settle labor disputes between city management and public-safety unions -- an option favored by Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman.

They could also follow the example of San Jose, where voters decided last year to modify, rather than eliminate, their city's binding-arbitration provisions. San Jose changed its law to give the power of arbitration to a retired judge.

If the council chooses to reform rather than repeal, the new ordinance would create a host of new rules for how arbitrators are chosen and what types of issues they could consider in their deliberations. The reform measure drafted by City Attorney Molly Stump and unanimously approved by the council's Policy and Services Committee Tuesday also specifies that the arbitration board shall consider "the city's costs to fund all city services, programs and activities" and "identify the revenues available to meet the costs of ongoing and new provisions" in the proposed contract.

The proposed reform measure would limit the arbitrator's scope to compensation issues, which include wages, salaries, health care, pension and time off. It also includes a list of items that would be specifically excluded from the arbitrator's consideration. These include elimination of positions, use of part-time employees and staffing levels for equipment.

The proposed measure also specifies that arbitration proceedings would be open to observation by the public.

The council's effort to change or eliminate the 1978 provision was driven by the rising expenditures in the city's Fire Department and a report that was issued last year by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury. The report criticized mandatory binding-arbitration and recommended that San Jose give its voters the option of repealing the policy.

In Palo Alto, council members agree that the law is now outdated, but they remain closely split on whether to repeal or change it. While Scharff, Holman, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid have advocated repeal, other members said they favored reform.

The committee also recommended last week that if the council chooses repeal, it should also adopt a new ordinance requiring the two parties to go to mediation, a process that is currently optional.

"The purpose would be to obligate parties to go through the process," Burt said Tuesday night. "As with any negotiation, you can have a party that's not participating in an enthusiastic way, but I think it still serves a purpose and parties have to act in good faith."

Even as the council is considering changing or repealing binding arbitration, city officials are preparing to go to arbitration proceedings to settle the city's long and bitter contract standoff with the firefighters union. The parties have been negotiating on a new contract since May 2010 and have yet to reach an agreement.

Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, this week released a statement accusing the city of rejecting its offer to go to mediation to settle the impasse. Union President Tony Spitaleri said the union is "puzzled" by the council's decision to reject mediation before going to binding arbitration.

"The council has publicly criticized binding arbitration and is in the process of reviewing possible reforms to arbitration, one of which includes a requirement for mediation," Spitaleri said in a statement. "Yet when the council has the opportunity to voluntarily go to mediation in order to avoid binding arbitration, they choose not to.

"What they say publicly and what they do behind closed doors in labor negotiations seem to be two different things," Spitaleri said.

Spitaleri said the union's latest offer would produce about $3.1 million in cost savings. City officials have maintained that the offer is inadequate largely because it doesn't address the "minimum staffing" requirement in the firefighters' contract, which requires 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times.

The binding-arbitration hearings are expected to begin this fall.

If the council chooses to put a binding-arbitration measure on the ballot, it would be one of two measures Palo Alto voters would be asked to consider in November. Voters will also decide whether to make a 10-acre portion of Byxbee Park available for a new waste-to-energy facility.

The council meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Monday in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 17, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Any PA city council person who does not vote to allow the citizens of PA the opportunity to vote to repeal binding arbitration should be removed from office. I am not a one issue voter but this is a bellwether issue for me. It says a lot about whether an elected representative is willing to work to rein in the ballooning liabilites and inefficiencies that are a result of the excessive power of the labor unions, or if they prefer to allow the status quo to continue.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Absolutely agree with the above poster. The council should not protect any special interest from the will of the voters, no matter how much that special interest contributed to their campaign. The fire union has become the most rampant special interest in city politics, and any council member who continues to be bought and paid for needs to be voted out.

The public gets it. The Measure R giveaway was voted down 3-1. It's time for the council to stop standing in the way of progress.

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Completely agree with both of the previous posters. And I hope we never concede to binding arbitration, which just gives up our ability to negotiate the outcomes we need to run this city.

Arbitrators do not have to live with the consequences of their decisions. We do.

Like this comment
Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 20, 2011 at 9:33 am

Is there a perception afoot that it is long term "sustainable", fair, practical, etc.,...that there be both the elimination of binding arbitration AND the realistic continuation that a strike is to be unthinkable?

Or, even from a "why are you trying to kill the goose which lays your golden egg?" perspective.....These arbitrators ---and particularly as viewed from a more vitriolic "I AM JOHN GALT REBRON" mindset-- "stack the deck" a bit towards the union's side. Just as the vanishing real profession of journalism tends to attract liberals. Meanwhile other young'uns who graduate onto become CEO's tend to stand a better chance of being invited to Bohemian Grove.

But does anyone think that the arbitrators aren't securely stepping in line to a the beat of a basically pro-capitalist agenda? Probably a bit behind the science of economics, but locked in none the less?

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

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