Despite vehement opposition from the city's largest union and an unfavorable ruling this week from a fact-finding panel, Palo Alto plans to move ahead with hiring a contractor to enforce the city's long-awaited downtown parking-permit program, the city announced Thursday.
The city has been pursuing a permit program for downtown's parking-parched residential neighborhoods for more than five years, a process that hit a milestone in December when the City Council approved the details of the latest proposal. Initially slated to launch this spring, the new program is now set to make its debut in the fall. The program will institute a two-hour parking time limit on residential streets and require drivers who park there longer to purchase permits, which would only be made available to downtown's residents and employees.
While the plan has won the hard-fought support from residents, employers and the City Council, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 521, has lashed out against one of its key components: the hiring of outside consultants to enforce the new time limits. The city plans to hire the firm Serco to be the enforcer, a function that the SEIU believes should fall to the city's eight existing community-service officers. In March, several union officials attended a City Council meeting, where they maintained that the job can be handled by existing staff.
Gabriel Mora, a community-service officer, told the council that the union was "surprised that the city was thinking of contracting out" and said the proposal was never mentioned to the workers by their managers. But management believes that keeping the work in-house would further delay a program that has already faced a series of setbacks.
In a statement, city officials said they believe the contractor, Serco, can have the program up and running within 60 days. Serco currently provides parking services in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Keeping enforcement with existing staff or hiring new workers would delay the program by up to a year because of the need for training, new technology and redeployment of personnel, the statement notes.
At a March meeting of a Residential Parking Permit Program stakeholder group, the city's Transportation Planning Manager Jessica Sullivan said the city held six meet-and-confer sessions with the union and said the workers "did not provide proposals which were responsive to the city's main concerns."
On Thursday, City Manager James Keene called the parking-permit program a "pilot program" and noted that it will "require a flexible, adaptable and changeable approach to staffing throughout the project."
That is not possible using existing staff, and our community has been advocating and working on this program and expects to see it implemented as soon as possible," Keene said in a statement.
The union's concerns were bolstered by this week's report from a three-member fact-finding panel, which includes representatives from the two disputing sides and a neutral arbitrator. Though the conclusion is non-binding, the panel's arbitrator and mediator, Paul D. Roose, recommended that the city not contract out enforcement.
The panel, Roose wrote, "views the City's proposal to contract out this work now as a substantial departure from past practices." And while the city has characterized the parking program as a "pilot program," Roose noted that the city has no plans in place to switch the enforcement duties to city staff once the trial is completed.
"The evidence that parking enforcement constitutes the vast majority of CSO work was unrebutted. However, the job description reads, parking enforcement remains the core of the CSO duties. Enforcement of residential parking programs and other hang-tag programs are part of these core duties," Roose wrote.
The panel concluded that the city's proposal "tilts too far and too fast in the direction of upending a long-standing practice."
"That practice is that the Union's bargaining unit members in the City of Palo Alto have performed parking enforcement in all its various aspects," Roose wrote. "For this reason, and in the context of the entire analysis presented above, the panel recommends that Downtown RPP parking enforcement work not be contracted out to the City's selected vendor."
The ruling was immediately slammed by city officials, with Assistant City Manager Suzanne Mason arguing in a dissent that Roose "prioritizes the speculative concerns of a public employee union over the best interests and welfare of the public."
Mason, who represented the city on the three-member board, argued that the factfinder "improperly dismisses the unique challenges associated with the downtown pilot and recommends a course of action that would further delay -- by a year or more -- the implementation of a pilot program that Palo Alto residents have clearly identified as an urgent need."
Initially slated to launch in the spring, the city now plans to start selling permits in August and begin enforcement in the fall.