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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Editorial: City-employee strike is destructive choice Editorial: City-employee strike is destructive choice (June 23, 2004)

Warnings of a possible strike by Palo Alto city workers is a fine negotiating ploy but should be rejected by employees due to lasting damage a strike would cause

In letters to neighborhood leaders and the press, the union representing Palo Alto city employees has listed dire outcomes should current salary/benefit negotiations fail and result in a strike.

But the more than 600 employees represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 715, should take a hard look at some history before they seriously consider a full-blown strike -- namely the impact of the mid-1970s strike on employees, management, citizens and businesses and long-term relationships within city departments.

No one won, and the anger and hurt that resulted from the lengthy strike lingered throughout city departments for years, sometimes abating only with the retirement or departure of those most scarred by it.

Both union and city officials project a 50-50 chance of some type of strike action, depending on the outcome of a negotiation session Monday and union-membership meetings Tuesday, at 5:50 a.m. for Municipal Services Center workers and 5 to 7 p.m. for others -- after the Weekly's press time. Union representative Ben Holgate expressed hope that a settlement could be reached, acknowledging that "I'm an optimist by nature."

Employees do have legitimate concerns about increases in health coverage and the "outsourcing" of certain part-time jobs. They perhaps have a right to feel slightly insulted by the requirement that everyone take three unpaid "furlough" days to help balance the city budget next year.

Last year the non-management employees took voluntary furlough days to help the city save more than $400,000 -- which allowed employees to average the days off so some could take more and some fewer days.

But employees should keep in mind that the city itself is caught in a crossfire. It faces level or declining revenues due to the continuing economic slump, continuing high demands for services and facilities by residents and increases in the same "costs of living" that are afflicting virtually all of us -- from skyrocketing fuel costs to big jumps in health-insurance premiums. City officials also have been the target of continuing attacks from a few in the community over alleged high staffing ratios and "management bloat."

Even with the proposed increases in health costs to employees, Palo Alto's benefits still comprise a solid package that compares well with those of other public agencies. Few if any other cities offer 100 percent coverage of retirement health care with no vesting period and 60 percent s coverage for spouses, for instance.

No one is saying employees shouldn't represent their own interests as vigorously as possible -- but residents should recognize the recent strike-warning letters for the negotiating tactic they are.

We hope that negotiations this week are successful. But employees should recognize that actually going out on strike could begin a process that will leave bitter scars for years and completely change the work environment in the city.

Editorial: A consultant on managers? Editorial: A consultant on managers? (June 23, 2004)

The decision to hire a consultant to help the Palo Alto City Council evaluate its top four managers may improve the process -- but it makes one wonder how the city has gotten along for the more than a half century without one.

When the city adopted the council-manager form of government in the early 1950s, it moved from the old-style "commissioner" form. In doing so, it vested power in the City Council to supervise directly the five council-appointed officers, since reduced to four: The city manager, city attorney, city clerk and city auditor.

The council has a standing three-member committee to oversee the four officials who report directly to it. The consultant is to work an estimated 46 hours interviewing council members, and reviewing -- and recommending -- compensation adjustments. The cost is yet to be determined.

Getting some clerical help is one thing, but we challenge the need for a full-blown consultant. The city's Human Resources Department ought to be able to provide a benchmark comparison with other cities, but it's the responsibility of the elected members of the council to set compensation levels and benefits -- it's one of the accountability things they were elected to do.

With a consultant, it will be far too easy to take the cop-out: "We just did what the consultant recommended."

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