Despite the absence of a City Council race on the ballot, Palo Alto voters strongly approved measures that will improve the city's oversight of its two public safety unions and set the stage for a possible new method of dealing with its waste and compost.
Both Measures D and E rolled up solid "yes" votes Tuesday in an election that split the environmental community (Measure E) and supporters of organized labor (Measure D).
But in each case voters made the right call, ending binding arbitration for police and firefighters and making it possible to proceed with a thorough assessment of whether the city should invest in an anaerobic digestion plant that would turn yard and food waste and sludge from the sewage-treatment plant into compost and energy.
Both races were characterized by large infusions of money on what turned out to be the losing side on Measure D and the winning side on E. The firefighters union, which earlier had surprised most observers by agreeing to a contract after a 16-month stand-off, poured more than $60,000 (as of the reporting period that ending Oct. 22) into the campaign to fight Measure D, which featured such Palo Alto luminaries as Gary Fazzino, Gail Price and Ladoris Cordell in slick campaign mailers urging voters to keep binding arbitration in the police and firefighters' contract.
Supporters of D, which was placed on the ballot by a slim majority of the City Council, argued that the city faced a major handicap in labor negotiations when the final say in a contract could be given to an outside arbitrator who has no responsibility for city finances or accountability to the public. And obviously voters saw the flaws in the argument that without the right to strike, police and fire employees have too little negotiating leverage, so need binding arbitration as the ultimate threat to assure fair negotiations. But with 95 percent of California cities operating without binding arbitration, that position is obviously flawed. And wages, health care and retirement benefits are better now for police and fire unions than ever before.
With the firefighters sudden agreement on a new contract just prior to the election, Palo Alto will start the new year without two major stumbling blocks in play -- binding arbitration and minimum staffing. Now the city can decide how many firefighters are needed at each station and be able to work through labor negotiations without the threat of binding arbitration looming in the backround.
The clash over Measure E split the local environmental community, with longtime activist and former Palo Alto Mayor and Councilman Peter Drekmeier leading the way for those in favor of reserving a 10-acre site at the Baylands to possibly house an anaroebic composting facility, while Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, the namesakes for two Palo Alto open space reserves, bitterly opposed to the measure, which they see as an unrecoverable loss of precious parkland.
In our editorial titled, "Yes on E, with caution," we explained that the measure does nothing more than reserve 10 acres as a possible site for a compost facility. If the city decides not to proceed with such an installation, the site would return to parkland after 10 years.
Now the way is clear for the city to consider what could be an exciting new and innovative idea to turn yard and food waste, and possibly sewage sludge into compost and energy at a new facility. An earlier study did not provide enough information to make a good decision on what could cost the city millions of dollars. Delaying dedication of the 10 acres as parkland will simply give the city time to conduct a more definitive study and then decide if the best course is to build its own facility or continue to truck waste to the Sunnyvale SMaRTstation.