By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The committee charged with recommending changes to Santa Rosa’s bylaws has three options when it comes to binding arbitration of police and firefighter contracts.
It can do nothing, effectively recommending the City Council leave things as they’ve been since voters approved binding arbitration in 1996.
It can recommend that the City Council place on next fall’s ballot the elimination of binding arbitration from the city charter entirely.
Or it can recommend the City Council put on the ballot changes to how binding arbitration works.
The third option is the one gaining the most traction as the 21-member committee digs into the thorniest issue before it.
Binding arbitration was passed by 53 percent of voters in 1996 after a strong push by public safety workers, who argued they needed it because unlike other workers, they do not have the legal right to strike.
It works like this. If the city and its public safety workers can’t reach agreement on a contract, the issue goes before a three-member panel of arbiters who make a decision based on a number of factors. These include the history of negotiations, the pay and benefits awarded to public safety workers in similar cities, and the city’s ability to pay.
Public safety officials say binding arbitration has helped foster a better working relationship with the city. Others say binding arbitration has contributed to skyrocketing public safety compensation and improperly takes key decisions out of the hands of local officials.
Several committee members said doing nothing is not an option.
“I think it’s very clear the public want us to do something on this general subject,” Doug Bosco, a former congressman and a committee member, said at the most recent committee meeting.
City staff, however, have advised the committee that eliminating binding arbitration entirely might not be the best route, either. Cities without binding arbitration will be bound by a new state law that requires disputes to head to a “fact finding panel,” a process that could be as expensive or time consuming as binding arbitration.
So the committee is searching for changes to binding arbitration that would appear on the ballot and have established a three-member subcommittee to explore those changes.
The subcommittee will meet in private with representatives of police and fire unions and City Attorney Caroline Fowler. Its goal is to see what kind of changes the public safety groups might accept without a fight at the ballot box.
City officials have told the committee there are three ways they’d like to see the charter language about binding arbitration changed.
One is to define what the city can afford. Currently, the arbitration panel must take into account the city’s “ability to pay” in rendering its decision about whether a contract is fair. But that is “extremely ambiguous” from a legal standpoint, Fowler said.
“Does that mean, for example, you have to dig into your reserves? Does it mean you have to cut your recreation and park programs?” Fowler said at the most recent meeting.
Bosco proposed a simple solution: capping general fund spending for public safety at a specific percentage. That would clearly define for an arbitration panel what voters consider is the city’s ability to pay, Bosco said.
Retired reverend Ann Gray Byrd said with public safety now comprising 60 percent of the city’s general fund, those who warned in 1996 about the prospect of service cuts and higher fees have been proven correct.
“Let’s quit fooling around here folks and playing nicey nice — Measure A has hurt our city and the threat of binding arbitration has hurt,” Byrd said.
Others said, however, that the many cities around the state without binding arbitration find themselves in equally challenging financial straits.
Terry Price, a political consultant and also a committee member, said a level playing field for all workers has to be restored.
“It’s an issue of fairness of all the city employees, not just for fire and police,” Price said. “Their share of the pie keeps expanding while every other service in the city seems to be shrinking.”
The two other changes city officials would like to see involved limiting the panel from three arbitrators to one to save money, and not allowing disciplinary disputes to go to binding arbitration.
The subcommittee is made up of Sonia Taylor, a graphic designer and political activist; Tony Alvernaz, retired city programmer and former head of the city’s largest employee union; and Kurt Groninga, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College official.
The subcommittee is allowed to meet behind closed doors because state open meetings laws allow exemptions for such working groups, Fowler said. The subcommittee will report back to the full committee by Feb. 18.