If there's one thing that's more frustrating for downtown residents than finding parking on their congested streets, it's waiting for City Hall to fix the worsening problem.
Yet on Monday, the City Council offered a hopeful sign that a solution will be in place this fall when it approved an enforcement contract for downtown's new Residential Parking Permit Program (RPPP). A product of many years of clamoring from downtown residents and 10 months of planning by a group of area stakeholders, the new parking-permit program would establish time limits for cars that park on downtown's residential streets, which currently allow all-day parking.
The time limits would not apply to cars with permits, which the city plans to start selling in August and would only be available to downtown's residents and employees. The goal is to drive out from downtown streets the Caltrain commuters and Stanford students who city officials believe use residential neighborhoods like Downtown North and Professorville as their all-day parking lots to avoid paying garage fees.
In approving the $1.5-million contract with Serco, Inc., the council trampled over objections from the city's largest labor union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 521.
The union had protested the city's decision to contract out enforcement and insisted that the function can be carried out by existing city staff. The SEIU had proposed enforcing the permit area with two employees, aided by license-plate readers. The city intends to have four enforcement officers without license-plate readers.
After four months of negotiations brought about no compromise, the SEIU brought their complaint to a fact-finding panel, as allowed under state law. On June 15, the panel recommended that the city not contract out parking enforcement. Mediator Paul D. Roose argued in the opinion that parking enforcement has always been the domain of the city's community-service officers and that the city's decision to contract out the service deviates too much from historic precedent.
"The Employer's proposal, in this instance, tilts too far and too fast in the direction of upending a long-standing practice," Roose wrote. "That practice is that the Union's bargaining unit members in the City of Palo Alto have performed parking enforcement in all of its various aspects. 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."
Because the recommendation is not binding, the union's victory proved largely symbolic. The council swiftly agreed to follow staff's recommendation and approve the Serco contract. According to a staff report, Serco will recruit and train personnel, as well as provide uniforms, badges, identification tags and vehicles.
In discussing the contract, council members kept returning to the same point: It's time to get this program started.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss observed that the city has had "few issues more in contention than downtown parking" and her colleagues agreed that the program should be put in place as soon as possible. Yet both Kniss and Councilman Greg Scharff marveled at the fact that, for all the controversy about the new program, not a single speaker came to Monday's meeting to address the council.
Scharff called the long journey to the parking program "embarrassing" and said he was "disappointed" with the SEIU and its decision to challenge the city on enforcement and to request an opinion from a fact-finding panel. This delayed the implementation of the program by six months, he said.
"To put the city through all that and put the public through all of that -- and yet there's not a single person here from the SEIU," Scharff said. "It's just shocking. And I'm really disappointed that something like this would happen."
Councilman Eric Filseth, a resident of Downtown North, observed that the program has been "a long time coming," while Councilman Marc Berman said it's "vital that we roll out the RPPP as quickly as possible."
Despite all the frustration in getting to the starting line, council members voiced some optimism for the program, which will be implemented in two phases. The first phase will focus on collecting data and will last six months. The second phase will follow immediately and will be based on stakeholder input and refinements based on the collected data. Enforcement is scheduled to begin in September.
"This is really going to be a phenomenal program," Kniss said. "I have high hopes for this and I think the general public has been waiting for this a long time."