Earlier this month, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirmed that the petition had received more than 2,430 signatures, enough to qualify for the November ballot. A similar initiative is slated to appear on the city of Livermore's ballot, and another that qualified in Emeryville is on hold as the city is challenging the legality of a union proposal.
The battle between the union and Stanford Health Care — the main target of the campaign — has placed Palo Alto officials smack in the middle of a battle they didn't signed up for. On Monday, the Palo Alto council met in a closed session to consider whether to file its own legal challenge to the union proposal. Though the council didn't take any action, staff and council members indicated later in the meeting that they have major reservations about the proposal, which would require the Administrative Services Department to take on the unfamiliar role of health care regulator.
City Manager James Keene noted that the city didn't get any advance notice from the union about the petition, much less a request for feedback. This, he said, is unusual given the huge impact the health care initiative would have on City Hall.
"We're not equipped to handle this," Keene said. "We need to recognize that this has been dropped on us, really."
Despite its concerns, the council voted unanimously to certify the results of the initiative petition, setting the stage for the November vote. It also requested that staff prepare an "objective and fact-based analysis" on the effect of the measure on Palo Alto residents. The council is scheduled to consider the staff report in August, after its summer recess.
Vice Mayor Eric Filseth said the measure appears to constitute a "very large unfunded mandate" by requiring the city to regulate health care. The city, he said, has neither the expertise nor the bandwidth to fulfill this mandate. Paying for this function would require the city to potentially use revenues that are currently used for things like fixing pot holes and providing fire services.
Before its vote Monday, the council heard from dozens of speakers — proponents who urged placement of the issue on the ballot and opponents who urged the council to legally oppose the SEIU proposal. The crowd included executives from Stanford Health Care, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and other local providers, all of whom opposed the initiative; and graduate students and union supporters, who spoke in its favor.
David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care, argued that the initiative is "inherently against the best interest of Palo Alto and its residents" and that it will have "far-reaching negative consequences." If it succeeds, it could cut into the revenues of local health care providers, requiring them to cut back on services and potentially relocate, he argued.
"We recognize that health care is costly. We are working to bring the costs down, but this initiative doesn't help that," Entwistle said. "It will just reduce the ability of health care programs and services by drastically underfunding them."
Union supporters rejected this logic and alleged Stanford charges exorbitant rates and provides substandard care. While Stanford's attorneys argued that the initiative is unconstitutional — largely because it forces the city to regulate an area that is normally reserved for federal and state agencies — Declen Walsh, research analyst at SEIU-UHW, claimed that Stanford's assertions are baseless.
Walsh also asserted that the city would recover the costs of enforcing the new rules through fines.
"The council should let the people decide whether they want to lead on affordable, quality health care rather than allow Stanford to pre-empt that decision," Walsh said.
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