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In Palo Alto, council members agree that the law is now outdated, but they remain closely split on whether to repeal or change it.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.