Palo Alto voters will have a chance in November to repeal a local law that empowers an arbitration panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its police and fire unions.
The City Council voted 5-4 on Monday night to place on the November ballot a measure that would repeal the city's binding-arbitration provision, a 1978 law that gives a three-member panel power to rule on contract disputes between city management and public-safety unions. The narrow vote came after a lengthy discussion over whether the provision should be repealed or modified.
Council members Greg Scharff and Karen Holman had suggested repealing binding arbitration last August but saw their proposal defeated by a 4-5 vote, with Mayor Sid Espinosa, Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh, and council members Larry Klein, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd dissenting.
Though four of the council members who opposed the repeal last year continued to do so Monday night, Yeh provided proponents of the repeal with the needed swing vote and joined Scharff, Holman, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid in placing the repeal on the ballot.
Yeh said that while he doesn't support the repeal, he believes an up and down vote on the provision would allow the community to send a clear message to the council.
"I think the voters do need to have an opportunity to actually weigh in on this issue," Yeh said.
The council declined to give voters the chance in November to weigh in on an alternate measure that would have reformed rather than repealed the provision. Under the modification proposal, the arbitrators' scope would have been limited to compensation, and the panel would have been required consider such factors as the city's financial projections and the costs of meeting the new contract.
The measure also would have set up new requirements for the panel's one neutral arbitrator (the other two panelists are chosen by the two sides). This arbitrator would have to be a California attorney who is a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators.
The firefighters union, which remains in a standoff with the city over a new contract, has consistently opposed the effort to repeal the measure. Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, equated the repeal effort Monday to stripping the union of its collective-bargaining rights.
Spitaleri also alleged Monday that the council, in placing the repeal on the ballot, is violating a California law that requires public agencies to bargain in "good faith" with labor groups.
Scharff and Holman argued Monday night, as they have in the past, that the binding-arbitration provision takes away the council's ability to manage the city's finances. Scharff said the law puts the city is an "untenable position" of not being able to balance its budget. He noted that the fiscal year 2012 budget the council passed last month includes a $4.3 million hole that city officials plan to fill with concessions from public-safety unions.
"It puts us in a position where the threat of binding arbitration makes it impossible to plan and move forward with our decision," Scharff said. "That's how we ended up with no budget.
"If we didn't have binding arbitration, decisions would've been made earlier, and we'd have a budget that works."
Holman agreed and said that while binding arbitration had only been used six times since the voters adopted it, its existence has significantly influenced the city's stances in its negotiations with police and firefighters.
"We really have been constrained by binding arbitration's presence because in order to avoid binding arbitration we have settled for something less than where we needed to be," Holman said.
The council coupled the repeal measure with a new ordinance requiring all disputes between the city and its labor unions (both public safety and non-public safety) to go to mandatory but non-binding mediation.
Some, including Councilman Larry Klein, argued against the repeal, noting that unlike other employees, police and firefighters don't have the right to strike. A modified binding-arbitration provision would have provided the public-safety unions with a negotiating tool.
"It strikes an appropriate balance," said Klein, a member of the council's Policy and Services Committee, which worked with the city's legal staff to craft the modified provision. "It restricts what the arbitrator can look at, but it still leaves the unions with an opportunity for having another vehicle for a decision if the city gets out of bounds on issues of compensation."
Binding arbitration will be one of two measures that Palo Alto voters will consider when they step into the voting booth Nov. 8. They will also vote on whether to make a 10-acre portion of Byxbee Park in the Palo Alto Baylands available for a waste-to-energy facility.