When it comes to contract negotiations, Palo Alto's managers and professionals have always stood apart from other labor groups.
Because the roughly 200 employees who belong to this group don't belong to a union, their compensation adjustments generally mirror those of the city's unions, particularly the Service Employees International Union, Local 521. Yet in discussing new contracts for these employees, the City Council follows the same protocols as it does for SEIU and other unions -- closed-session discussions, a vote and later a public announcement of the action taken.
Closed-session negotiations for labor groups are currently the norm throughout the Bay Area, according to a report from the Human Resources department. San Jose is the only major city that includes public discussions of compensation for both represented and unrepresented.
Now, Palo Alto is considering changing that. In a move championed by Councilman Greg Scharff, the council agreed earlier this month to reconsider its policies for discussing management compensation.
Scharff argued on Nov. 17, that because the group is not a union, these should be held in public, a change that he said would improve transparency. With unions, he said, it would be harder to hold talks in public because the two sides in the negotiations each have positions that need to be negotiated over a series of back-and-forths. The management and professionals group don't have these constraints.
"I do think we have a strong commitment in the community for transparency," Scharff said. "This is something that would make it very transparent if we went ahead and conducted these in open session."
Scharff advocated changing the policy for managers and professionals immediately. The rest of the council was more cautious and voted 7-1 -- with Scharff dissenting and Karen Holman absent -- to refer the issue to its Policy and Services Committee, which will also review the city's procedures for negotiating with other labor groups.
"I think it's important not to create new policy on the fly," Councilman Pat Burt said in arguing for the latter option. "If we want to reconsider policy, I think it should be a thoughtful and thorough discussion at the Policy and Services Committee."
The council majority also agreed with City Manager James Keene that the current practice for holding talks in a closed session should apply in the current round of negotiations. Keene said that he had discussed the subject with managers and they expressed concerns about the change.
Keene recommended "staying the course now" and then having "a larger policy discussion" about where to go from here. The report from Human Services also noted that there was "significant concern expressed about this potential change in direction and that unrepresented employees were being singled out and treated differently from other employee groups."
Councilwoman Gail Price supported Keene's proposal not to make any changes at this time and said she felt it was "inappropriate" to try to bring this item forward in an open session. She said the workers were "greatly offended by the discussion around the issue."
"We do need to have a thorough conversation about any alternatives that could be considered," Price said.
The Policy and Services Committee is set to discuss the issue in the coming months, after which time the topic will return to the full council for a final decision.