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Palo Alto to reconsider closed sessions for labor talks

City Council defers scheduled discussion on management compensation, agrees to hold 'broad policy' discussion on negotiations

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.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

The idea of having these sessions open to the public is refreshing .. providing that the sessions actually deal with substantive issues that have been subject to the public’s concern in the past.

For instance—setting salaries is becoming a very controversial issues. With public sector salaries now easily exceeding many private sector salaries, and pension benefits now easily doubling what a retired employee can make in his/her retirement years—having public awareness to how our elected officials deal with this issues would be very helpful in choosing our future Council Members.

The only sticking point, it would seem, is how to deal with public input that presumably would be allowed during these sorts of sessions. Given how polarizing labor unions can be, it would not be all that hard to believe that the room where these sessions would be held would be filled to be brim with Union members, all calling for higher salaries, lower retirement ages, and less accountability to the public.

Given this rather predictable outcome, at some point, it would seem that having this session open to the public might not benefit the taxpayers that much--since the taxpayers will not ever be as organized as the Unions are.

Maybe taping the sessions and making the video available on-line might be a better start. If the public were to take interest, then perhaps opening the session up to the public would be a good idea.


Like this comment
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 23, 2014 at 11:36 am

I don't believe it's just labor unions compensation; I'd like to know about the compensation of the Mr. Keene and the top department managers and whether they're getting bonuses. I'd also like to know why we pay over-time to very high salaried employees, those making over $100,000.


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