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By Erin Glanville

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About this blog: While state and federal politics dominate the headlines, local issues have an enormous impact on our everyday lives. This blog will attempt to shine a light on topics of public interest and facilitate greater participation in the ...  (More)

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A Tale of Two Public Services BART vs. The Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board

Uploaded: Oct 29, 2013
The BART trains have started rolling again as a tentative agreement has been reached, much to the relief of Bay Area commuters. But many people, including me, have been left reeling by what the strike uncovered about massive overtime spending enabled by "lucrative" work rules. A growing story of our time is public pension liabilities. Thanks to the strike, light has now also been shined on the dangers of excessive overtime pay. The results are appalling.

We all pay for BART through our California sales tax and bonds, bridge tolls, etc., so when the San Jose Mercury News did some outstanding reporting that included posting an online Public Employee Salary database for BART employees, there was general shock and public outrage at the frequent double and tripling of employee base salaries (which averaged $76,500) through overtime. How could that be? As it turns out, a 470 page "work rule book" negotiated by management and the unions had a number of work rules that enabled this massive paycheck-padding. For example, employees could take several sick days and then earn overtime for the rest of the week. Until it was exposed through the media—only because of the strike-- the public had no idea about the outrageous overtime payouts and the true total compensation cost per employee. It is important to note that BART management was just as egregious in their exploitation of the system. Witness Dorothy Dugger, the former BART GM, who was forced to retire two years ago yet was able to collect $330,000 in 2012 by extending her time on the payroll by running out the clock on her saved vacation vs. taking a lump sum, as any private sector employer would require. She did not break any laws, but she clearly exploited the system to the detriment of the taxpayer.

Lets now compare that with how overtime is treated closer to home with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board. First, lets consider how the District Board deals with overtime. An obvious first difference: according to the Memorandum of Understanding they operate under (section 2.3.2), Menlo Park firefighters are paid overtime only for the hours actually worked over and above their applicable FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act). So no sick or vacation time is counted towards accruing it. Seems obvious…. except to previous BART negotiators. More importantly, the District Board regularly reviews overtime figures as a discussion item at their monthly public meetings. They use overtime numbers as a barometer for staffing decisions. Too much overtime spending means they have not staffed enough. None means they are overstaffed. Overtime pay is not used as a free-for-all padding of salaries that goes unchecked until the next contract negotiation. It is used as a key performance indicator of how well management is utilizing resources. Lastly, those results are available for the world to see…. and comment on. Besides being reviewed monthly, in 2008, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District voted to enable the public to have a 15 day comment period on any collectively bargained labor agreement between the District and the union before that agreement could be acted upon. Note to BART: that is transparency. That is respecting the bill payers.

We are fortunate that we have financially responsible and transparent leadership with our local Fire Protection District Board. That is not a happy accident—it has only come about because members of previous boards and concerned citizens championed those ideals. A public (and media) assumption that the responsible thing is always happening is the first step towards abuse of any system. In the end, it takes diligence on the part of we, the taxpayers, to pay attention and make sure that public services are being run responsibly. We have two examples here that show a stark contrast as a result of our involvement and our neglect. For one, it is wisdom. For the other, it is foolishness.

Comments

Posted by Stella, a resident of another community,
on Oct 29, 2013 at 10:52 am

Well written article ! Your post got me very interested in this topic. BART workers have already lost the public's trust. I read somewhere that the cost of such a strike to a community is 70 million a day. Think of all the workers who could not afford to go on strike but actually have to work but couldn't because of this strike !!


Posted by Scott, a resident of another community,
on Oct 29, 2013 at 11:32 am

Unions are bankrupting California. There is no place for unionization in the public sector. Politicians plus unions equals corruption.


Posted by Jeannette, a resident of Portola Valley: other,
on Oct 29, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Thank you Ms Glanville for your revealing comments pointing out the disparity in the 2 systems. At a time when public trust in governance is at it's lowest, the new BART agreements are particularly galling. It requires diligence, oversight and activism to keep things in check. The days of fair dealing with trust went the way of the buggy whip.
We are all in your debt for turning the leaf over & examining it publicly. Yet another reason to welcome MP Firefighters as s/heroes.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Oct 29, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"There is no place for unionization in the public sector."

In a perfect world where management was wise, fair and all knowing this would be true; unfortunately we do not live in such a perfect world. Therefore unions can and do serve an important role in many organizations in both the public and private sectors by providing a worker's perspective on workplace practices, safety and just compensation. That said many organizations with wise and fair management work well with their non-unionized workers.

"Politicians plus unions equals corruption." Sadly true because unions endorse and support candidates for public office in return for implicit and explicit commitments that, once elected, those individuals will support the union's objectives and do so to the detriment of the citizens who elected them. Unfortunately it is legal for unions to endorse and support candidates for public office and it is legal for candidates to accept such support. And it is legal for those individuals, if elected, to then act in the best interests of the union which supported their candidacy. The only solution is for candidates for elected office to refuse such union endorsements and support and thereby be accountable only to the citizens whom they were elected to serve and for voters to only vote for candidates who take such a position,


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 30, 2013 at 7:43 am

Jeanette:

This is decidedly NOT a reason to "welcome MP firefighters as heroes." If the firefighters union had its way they would be able to do exactly what the BART union has gotten away with. As it says in the article "We are fortunate that we have financially responsible and transparent leadership with our local Fire Protection District Board. That is not a happy accident—it has only come about because members of previous boards and concerned citizens championed those ideals." Notice firefighters are nowhere in those two sentences.

Our firefighters as individuals are great, professional people. Their union is greedy.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 7:37 am

I liked how you tied a larger story (how BART operates) to a local story of how more transparency is effective. Setting up systems of integrity help the average person act with integrity. We all act out of our own needs so any system that isn't transparent enough will slowly become more and more self serving regardless of the systems or organizations stated goals. It doesn't matter if it is a religious group, NGO, union, corporation, sole proprietor, local or federal government agency they are just human social constructs, & I'd argue that even the religious organizations are amoral. It is how people operate them.

In Germany many large corporations have union reps on their boards and have company reps at union meetings. It works not because everyone has the same goals, but because as much as possible everything is open. In Japan their is the facade of government, business and union cooperation, but really the company runs the union and the government does what the large corporation want. Japan has lost a decade of economic growth in part because of this relationship.

As I read the comments it seems to me people are becoming more and more tribal. There is us and everyone else who are bad. We are nothing like them.
Keeping writing and encouraging people to be see how we are all more the same then different, even when we don't like them over there.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 9:34 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here is the Fire Board's standard statement on public comment:
"A fundamental element of democracy is the right of citizens to address their elected representatives. Therefore under Public Comment #2, the public may address the Board on any subject not listed on the Agenda. Each speaker may address the Board for a limit of three minutes. The filing of speaker cards is not mandatory, but is helpful in creating an accurate record. The Board can't act on items not on the agenda and therefore the Board can't respond to non-agenda issues brought up under Public Comment other than to provide general information."

And here is the Fire Board's policy on public input on proposed labor agreements:
"RESOLUTION OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF THE MENLO PARK FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT ADOPTING A POLICY REGARDING DISTRIBUTION
OF PROPOSED COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENTS


WHEREAS, in accordance with the policy of promoting prompt public access to government records, the California Public Records Act broadly defines public records (Gov. Code Section 6252, subdivision (3)) and the exceptions to disclosing public records under the California Public Records Act are narrow; and

WHEREAS, the Ralph M. Brown Act, Government Code Sections 54950 through 54963, enacted into law in 1953, requires open meetings of local agencies "to curb misuse of the democratic process by secret legislation of public bodies"; and

WHEREAS, the Ralph M. Brown Act "…reflects a legislative determination that 'public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business,' and an intent 'that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly' (Gov. Code Section 54950); and

WHEREAS, the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act require the District to conduct its business in a transparent manner; and

WHEREAS, the Board, as duly elected representatives of the citizens within the District, in conformance with the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, is committed to providing the District's citizens with information considered by the Board in making its decisions; and

WHEREAS, the Board believes due to the importance of proposed collective bargaining agreements with the District employee labor representatives, that these proposed agreements should be made available to the citizens of the District in sufficient time prior to the Board's adoption of the proposed agreements so as to allow for adequate review and comment by the public prior to final Board action.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Board of Directors of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District does hereby move that any proposed collectively bargained labor agreement between the District and designated District employee representatives shall be made publicly available at least fifteen (15) calendar days before the meeting at which the agreement will be acted on by the Board.



PASSED AND ADOPTED as a resolution of the Board of Directors of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District at the Regular Meeting held on the 16th day of December 2008"


Posted by OneBDay, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm

BART workers should be thankful for the fantastic benefit package they receive! They should happily work and never strike again over wages or benefits.

Thank you for bringing the BART situation a little closer to home


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 11:25 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Even though the two unions have voted to approve the new contract the proposed contract is STILL not available on the BART web site for the public to review and probably will not be until the legally required three day notice period before the BART Board's Special Meeting to approve this contract.


Posted by Scott Barnum, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 11:38 am

Excellent article/blog, Erin. Thanks to the Almanac's Editors for facilitating this type of commentary.

We, the public, get what we deserve with government, be it local, regional or national. If we are diligent in electing good candidates AND remain vigilant and involved (i.e., don't blindly assume/trust that things are or will be fine), we will get more of what we deserve - good governance, better services and more accountability. It is possible to get decent governance in the public sector (e.g., the Menlo Park Fire Protection District) and it all starts with electing candidates who know what they are doing and will work for the greater majority, not themselves or their special interests. This may be easier said than done, but electing good candidates certainly isn't impossible. And apathy is a certain route to mediocrity and problems.

Good leadership, be it in a governmental agency or a private company, begets good stewardship. And good stewardship generally results in organizations working well for all their stakeholders, regardless of whether there is a union involved or not.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District (MPFPD) is essentially an agency comprised of non-unionized management, unionized rank and file fire fighters and a publicly elected board of directors. Similar to a private company, the MPFPD board provides fiduciary and management oversight to the Fire Department's activities, both long and short term. They are acting as stewards of the tax payers and residents in helping make sure the public gets a well-run fire and emergency response capability within a budget.

Our Fire Department renders great service across many types of emergency response. Our fire fighters are a key resource for our communities and should be accorded a fair wage and respect for the good work that they do. That said, having fair and reasonable compensation, benefits and work rules that are not exploited/exploitable (to avoid what happened at BART) is exactly the type of thing the MPFPD board needs to oversee and ensure. The right board directors can do this and still achieve a good work environment where safety and response are not compromised.

Please take the time to find out who is running for the board in this election and vote. There are real differences between the candidates and there are key issues (e.g., a union contract) that could affect our Fire District for years to come.


Posted by Erin Glanville, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thank you to all of you posters for taking the time to provide thoughtful comments that add to this discussion.

Scott Barnum-- you, very fairly, bring up the upcoming MPFPD election. I did not mention the candidates in my article as I know this paper, The Almanac, has already endorsed three three of them (Web Link).

It deserves noting, however, that MPFPD candidate Peter Carpenter championed the 2008 adoption of the policy that gives the public 15 days to see and weigh in on collectively bargained labor agreements between the District and the union. As Peter has also noted in a comment here, BART only has a 3 day requirement. That is hardly encouraging public review and comment, and is yet another stark contrast between public sector entities that operate transparently and provide a true conduit for public input and those that do not.


Posted by Henry Riggs, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 6:55 pm

The good governance of the MPFPD is no accident. Past leaders like Peter Ohtaki, Rex Ianson, Steve Natscheim and Peter Carpenter insisted that the public's fire district should be responsible for the public's money - much in contrast to municipal governments in the 2000s.
That good governance is at risk on Tuesday. The same union leadership that turned down a 9% raise in 2008 (not big enough) has for five years held out hope for a "friendly" board of directors that would have less concern about funds than the honorable directors that Glanville describes. It's no secret that the union backs Nelson and Clark (and even recruited Clark) and no secret who they will support.
BTW, it was Chuck Bernstein that warned Menlo Park not to fall for the pension trap in 2007 - he spoke the day they voted, giving them the data that staff neglected. It will take 30 years to undo what was done in spite of his warning. Web Link
Support out firefighters, not a greedy union: vote for Bernstein, Carpenter and Ianson on Tuesday.


Posted by unfunded, a resident of another community,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 12:37 am

Henry, when Peter Ohtaki was on the MPFPD, he voted to use millions of tax payer dollars to pay down the unfunded pension liability that was created by your hero's Rex Ianson and Peter Carpenter. You cannot blame that unfunded pension liability on Nelson or Silano.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Nov 9, 2013 at 9:07 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Peter Ohtaki was the brilliant architect of the plan to use a much lower cost revenue bond to pay down the District's much higher cost CalPERS "side fund".
Ianson was not on the Board when the 3% at 50 contract was approved; I was and it was a huge mistake on my part.


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