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Two dramatically different views emerged Thursday of Santa Rosa's requirement to have a third party settle labor disputes between the city and its public safety workers.

Police and fire representatives, addressing the city's Charter Review Committee, characterized the requirement that voters added to the city charter in 1996, as helping usher in a more collaborative era of labor relations in the city.

Even though "binding arbitration," as it is known, has never been invoked, it is the "cornerstone" of that relationship, Brad Conners, vice president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association told the 21-member committee.

"Because all parties at the table know that should compromise escape them, someone from outside the negotiations table will come in and force them to play fair," Conners said.

But several members of the committee, which reviews possible changes to city government, questioned whether the 1996 initiative, called Measure A, has been a good thing for the city.

Committee member Bob Andrews said it is directly responsible for allowing public safety compensation levels to skyrocket. Andrews, a former owner of an employee benefits firm, said he has spoken to many city officials who have reached the same conclusion he has.

"They all quietly but emphatically express the belief that binding arbitration took away the city's bargaining power; that the threat of binding arbitration was enough to result in them having no effective power at the table," Andrews said.

Voters passed Measure A with 53 percent of the vote after a signature drive by the city's police and fire unions. The unions argued that binding arbitration would put them on a more equal footing in contract negotiations with the city.

Police and firefighters are prohibited by law from striking. In addition, before Measure A, if negotiations hit an impasse the city had the power to impose its last and best contract offer. Unions argued that binding arbitration would create a fair and cost-effective way to resolve conflicts with the city quickly without disruptions to public services.

But critics, including 14 former city mayors, warned that passing the measure would give an outside party too much say over a huge portion of the city's general fund, which at that point was 45 percent of the budget. That figure has since grown to nearly 60 percent.

They also argued that police and firefighters were already well paid, and had no problems recruiting workers, as evidenced by 2,600 people applying for a firefighter position.

Earlier this year, the City Council asked the Charter Review Committee to review whether the binding arbitration language in the charter ought to be changed. The committee makes recommendations every 10 years to the council, which then decides whether to put proposed changes before voters.

The discussion Thursday was complicated and wide-ranging, covering issues that included declining crime rates, the recruitment and retention of new personnel, and how other cities, like San Jose, have changed their binding arbitration language.

San Jose passed a measure amending binding arbitration in 2010. Arbiters must now base awards "primarily on the city's ability to pay." It also prohibits awards that would create an unfunded liability for the city, bars retroactive benefits, and prohibits awards that would result in police and fire compensation rising faster than general fund revenues. Unions spend nearly $1 million fighting that measure.

Several committee members said they want feedback from public safety unions about potential changes. Conners said he and other representatives were open to discuss the committee's concerns, but generally favored making no changes.

"To be perfectly honest with you, we'd be OK if you left it alone," Conners said.

The committee, which has until May to complete its work, decided to form a sub-committee to explore the issue further.