Palo Alto's long-awaited downtown parking-permit program will be delayed by at least three months because of concerns from City Hall's largest union.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 521, which represents roughly half of the city's workforce, has objected to the city's plan to implement the downtown Residential Parking Permit Program, which would impose time limits for cars that don't have permits to park in downtown's residential areas. Years in the making, the program aims to provide relief for residents who have long complained about the influx of employees whose cars take over residential streets during business hours.
The City Council unanimously approved the parking program in December with the understanding that the new requirements would kick in early this year. Under the program, residents would get free permits during the first six months, while employees would have to buy theirs for either $233 or $50, depending on their income levels.
The parking program was forged after years of debate, numerous public hearings and almost a year of regular meetings by a group of stakeholders, including neighborhood leaders, businesses and city officials. But in a March 9 letter, SEIU leaders complained that they were left out of the process. The union workers specifically object to the city's plan to contract out enforcement of the new parking restrictions.
The letter, whose signatories include Chapter Chair Margaret Adkins and SEIU 521 Director Nick Raisch, states that the union supports the parking-permit program and would like to see it succeed, but it also notes that the union is in the midst of a meet-and-confer process with city management and is having "some difficulties."
"One of the main difficulties stems from the fact that we were never included in any of the stakeholder meetings during the planning of the program," the letter states. "The City did not contact us about this program. The City did not contact us about this program until decisions had already been made. Unfortunately, this made it difficult to get any of our proposed suggestions into the program.
"The fact that we were never included in the conversation also makes it so that this process drags out for longer than it has to. While the city might try to blame us for holding up the process, it should be noted again that we are only doing our best to make sure this program benefits the residents, businesses and the employees of the City of Palo Alto."
The union's letter raised concerns about outside contractors performing work of community service officers, which are represented by the SEIU. The city, according to the union, is "pushing to hire an outside contractor that would bring workers who will not be required to go through the same background checks we have to go through," the union argued in the letter. The contractors will also most likely earn "significantly less than City employees and will have no benefits."
The union claims that the city's officers take great pride in their work, "even though their suggestions and ideas are constantly being denied by HR." According to the letter, the community service officers believe they can get the work done "without having to bring in outside contractors and with the potential to actually save the City money and bring in new and efficient technology into the City."
The union also claims that the community service officers performed a trial on their own time, demonstrating their ability to get the work done. The SEIU also claims that it has been given information by Human Resources that has proven to be "false, contradictory or at best a guesstimate."
"There is no transparency," the union states. "It seems as if the City is not really interested in meeting and conferring but more interested in dictating to us how the program is going to work."
Margaret Adkins, chapter chair of Local 521, said the union fully supports the parking program and has no desire to delay it. It does have concerns, however, about the way the city is implementing the program and about the city's estimates about how many workers it would take to enforce the new parking requirements.
The union was told that it would take about four full-time positions to enforce the downtown program. To test this assumption, the union had two of its community service officers go through the entire pilot area, which would have a two-hour parking limit for cars without permits. Each took care of half of the area and each was able to run through it in about an hour, Adkins told the Weekly.
The city currently has nine community service officer positions in its budget, though one is vacant. The SEIU believes that by filling the vacancy and bringing in new technology, staff can enforce the parking program in-house and provide better quality than residents would receive if the program were contracted out, Adkins told the Weekly.
Adkins said that even though the union had several meet-and-confer sessions with management, it never heard back from the city about its concerns.
"We understand the need for (the program) and the issues that everyone faces," Adkins said. "We don't want to hold it up, we just think it can be done more efficiently."
The City Council has not publicly discussed the union's concerns, though members have been aware of the delays since at least late January.
City Manager James Keene informed the council in a letter that staff is in the process of "meeting and conferring with the SEIU union representatives on the impacts of online permit sales and the issue of contracting out enforcement for the district."
At the time, the plan was to sign the contract for online permit sales in early March, though that deadline has now come and gone, and to start selling the permits in May. Under the revised timeline, the program would start implementation in June.
"This is somewhat later than our original target of April; however, the additional time will also allow for meaningful input from the neighbors and other community stakeholders on (a) the administrative guidelines that are needed for program implementation and (b) the data collection and monitoring program that will be implemented during phase one," Keene's letter states.
In late February, city officials provided the stakeholders group with an update that pushed the timeline further still. According to the meeting notes, the first phase is now tentatively scheduled to begin July 29, "due to length of time for signage fabrication and installation." The schedule was intended as a "draft and is subject to change, pending discussions with SEIU leaders."
Jessica Sullivan, the city's transportation planning manager, said staff is now in the process of refining its schedule for the program's rollout and will have an update next week.
She said the city has heard the union's concerns, reviewed them and is now focused on "just moving ahead." The delays, she said, are largely attributed to the complexity of putting together all the contracts required to get the program moving. Much of the work has been completed, though the contract for citations processing was still "up in the air" as of last week.