Almanac

Viewpoint - March 2, 2011

Editorial: Can Menlo Park bargain in public?

As much of the country watches the pitched battles over the rights of public employee unions in Wisconsin and other Midwest states, the first round of important meetings about how Menlo Park conducts negotiations with its two public sector unions will take place at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

The key question is how much of the labor talks — traditionally held mostly behind closed doors — should be out in the open. Supporters of Measure L, the initiative passed by voters in November that reduces key pension benefits for incoming, non-police employees, say all discussions should be made public, while city administration officials are hesitant, saying that doing so would put the city at a disadvantage.

A staff report prepared for the meeting shows that until last year, when the city imposed its final offer on the Service Employees International Union, there had been virtually no public testimony at meetings when final contracts were adopted by the council. Sixteen people testified last May on the SEIU contract. But from 2009 back until 2004, only seven people had anything to say when 12 contracts were approved.

Clearly, interest in public employee contracts is a new phenomenon, almost certainly brought on by the economic downturn, which has resulted in much lower revenue for cities and other government agencies.

One explanation for what happened in prior years is that perhaps the public was far too trusting of the city staff and City Council. In many cases, pay rates in surrounding cities were used as a basis for ramping up wages and benefits by awarding similar contracts in Menlo Park. The result was a circuit of ever-higher wages as each city attempted to land in the midrange of other cities.

For that and other reasons, some of the city's wages and retirement benefits, particularly in public safety, have inexorably climbed higher and higher, causing outrage among residents who finally are paying attention.

Nevertheless, we are not sure that making every communication between city negotiators and the unions will actually serve the public interest. The staff report mentions what is known by anyone who has bargained for anything — "... initial proposals usually contain items that are largely irrelevant to the final product and may lead to public concern that some will be agreed to that staff has no intention of recommending or that the council would accept."

So, in some cases, city negotiators should be given cover behind closed doors, but the council should pledge to make every movement in the negotiations public, and push union representatives to do the same. And we can't see any reason why union representatives need to meet behind closed doors with council members before negotiations even begin.

The staff recommends that the public get to see the final package for at least 10 days before a council vote. Negotiating teams for all the city's unions should understand that the council's focus this year will be to win acceptance of the Measure L provisions to roll back non-police retirement benefits for the SEIU and AFSCME, which represents middle managers.

This year's line-up of negotiations covers virtually all bargaining units:

• May to June: Police Officers Association and Police Sergeants Association.

• August to October: SEIU and AFSCME, incorporating Measure L parameters, and negotiations with SEIU temporary employees unit.

In the meantime, until contracts are signed with the SEIU, council members Kirsten Keith and Peter Ohtaki want to examine whether the city can outsource current job openings to contract employees, to avoid bringing in more employees at the current benefit level.

But City Manager Glen Rojas said hiring contractors may be difficult due to IRS rules governing public employees. The issue came up after the city advertised for a $7,000 a month arborist at the current benefit level. But Mr. Rojas said the city is short one supervisor for tree crews, a situation that is not sustainable.

All this points to a demanding year for the city's labor negotiators, for despite the public sentiment exhibited by local voters in adopting Measure L, it could be well into next year before its provisions can be implemented.

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