Almanac

News - February 23, 2011

Menlo Park union just wants to say hi

• SEIU organizer asks to meet with individual council members.

by Sandy Brundage

When an organizer from the Service Employees International Union Local 521(SEIU) sent an e-mail to the Menlo Park City Council asking to meet with each council member individually "to discuss various concerns and issues affecting all concerned parties," the obvious question was whether the council members would agree.

"I won't be and imagine no one else will either," said Mayor Rich Cline. "I have met with them before one on one and did not see any issue with it, but given where we are in the negotiations, I cannot see it happening."

The organizer, Lee Alvis, directed all questions to the union's communications director, Khanah Weinberg. She told the Almanac that as an organizer new to the area, Mr. Alvis wanted to personally introduce himself to each council member.

Councilman Peter Ohtaki, drawing upon his experience with negotiations as a member of the governing board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said he'd be willing to meet, but only after the SEIU negotiator and his team met with the city manager.

"There's a time and place where it's appropriate, where it wouldn't distract from the formal negotiation process," Mr. Ohtaki said. "It's inappropriate to meet with them until they've met with the city manager. And certainly you do not want to talk about negotiation topics."

He said that such meetings provide an opportunity to get to know the personalities of the bargaining team, as long as the conversation avoided any issue under negotiation.

Council members Kelly Fergusson and Andy Cohen didn't respond to the Almanac before deadline.

Last May, the council imposed pension benefit limitations on SEIU employees that raised the retirement age for new non-police city employees from 55 to 60, and decreased pension benefits from a maximum of four-fifths of annual salary to three-fifths.

The changes take effect only if the city negotiates the same deal with the city's middle management employees when their contract expires this year.

The union, along with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), threatened to sue the city again now that Measure L, which set similar pension limitations but also requires a public vote to raise benefits, passed in the November elections with 72 percent voter approval.

But now SEIU wants to return to the bargaining table. The council created a labor negotiation subcommittee in December, composed of Mayor Cline and Vice Mayor Keith, to increase the transparency of the city's bargaining process.

"The best course is as much transparency as possible," Vice Mayor Keith said regarding SEIU's request for individual meetings. "The council should discuss this issue at our next meeting in March, when the labor subcommittee reports to the council, and formulate a consensus on this."

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