After weathering criticism for a controversial closed-door discussion in 2012, Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday to reconsider their policy for holding meetings on labor negotiations out of the public eye.
In a rare move that signals the lingering impact of a recent Santa Clara County Grand Jury report, the City Council agreed on Monday not to hold its scheduled closed session to discuss the status of the city's labor negotiations with an unrepresented group of managers and professionals the only major employee group that is not in a labor union. Instead, the group agreed to consider on Oct. 6 the city's policies for such discussions.
The proposal not to hold the scheduled closed session was made by Councilman Greg Scharff, with Councilman Pat Burt concurring. The council then voted 8-1, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss dissenting, to hold a broader policy discussion about meeting behind closed doors to discuss compensation for non-represented employees. Once that discussion takes place, the council would schedule a meeting to discuss the status of negotiations.
The closed-session item that the council chose to defer was one of two that the council was scheduled to hold Monday night. It went ahead with its other item the status of the city's negotiations with the labor union.
The decision not to hold the closed session came a week after the council approved its response to a stinging audit from the Grand Jury, which criticized the city for insufficient transparency in its negotiations with developer John Arrillaga in 2012. The negotiations involved Arrillaga's ill-fated proposal for an office-and-theater complex at 27 University Ave., as well as his offer to buy a 7.7-acre parcel of city-owned land near Foothills Park. In response, the council had agreed earlier this month to refer to its Policy and Services Committee the broad topic of when to go into closed sessions.
The Monday decision concerned itself specifically with labor negotiations for non-unionized workers. Scharff told the Weekly that while the Grand Jury report sensitized him to the topic of closed sessions, he had similar concerns during recent closed-door sessions on the city's lease with the school district over a section of Cubberley Community Center.
He noted that the city's compensation changes for the managers and professionals group typically mirror the adjustments the city makes to its agreement with the Service Employees International Union, the city's largest labor group. As such, there's nothing particularly controversial about this, he said.
"For this item, I see no reason why we should go into a closed session," Scharff said. "I think it would actually help them to have the public understand what we're doing."
Kniss, the sole dissenter, said she felt the council's vote to have a full discussion about this topic is "pre-emptive." The council, she said, has never discussed the idea of holding public discussions about labor negotiations. She told the Weekly she felt the idea should have been vetted first by the council's Policy and Services Committee.
While it chose to defer the discussion on management compensation, the council went ahead with its other regularly scheduled closed session, which concerned the city's negotiations with the Palo Alto Police Officers Association. Scharff said that because the police officers belong to a union, the city would face "legal issues" if it were to discuss its negotiations with the police union publicly.