Santa Rosa's charter review process this year offered a golden opportunity to eliminate binding arbitration, the Sword of Damocles that hangs over the city in contract negotiations with public safety unions.
Approved by voters in 1995, binding arbitration requires that contract disputes with firefighters and police be decided by an outside third party. It was intended to add a measure of fairness after the right of public safety employees to strike was taken away. But because of the way the system is set up, public agencies are motivated to avoid binding arbitration at all costs, limiting their ability to keep pay and benefits in line.
Because of this, voters in Palo Alto, Stockton and San Luis Obispo have recently decided to take out binding arbitration all together. Instead of giving voters here an opportunity to repeal it, however, Santa Rosa's Charter Review Committee decided to go another route. They worked with representatives of police and fire unions to proposed wording changes that would provide more balance.
This revised wording is spelled out in Measure R, which is before Santa Rosa residents in the Nov. 6 election. We encourage voters to support it.
Although the central provisions still exist, including the requirement that the city's contracts be tied to those of "comparable cities," the wording changes are significant. It creates a set of mandatory guidelines that an arbitrator must follow when resolving a disagreement about pay and benefits. The arbitrator must consider, for example, the city's current financial situation, whether the City Council has declared a financial emergency and whether the city is facing any deficits. The arbitrator also would be required to consider any changes to the city's bond rating and any changes in benefit costs including pension liabilities. This may sound like an obvious directive, but such considerations are not required under the current wording.
Here's another factor. A reason the Charter Review Committee and the City Council, which unanimously approved the new wording, decided to avoid repeal is because of AB 646, an appalling new state law that essentially mandates that public agencies without binding arbitration go through a complicated fact-finding process when an impasse is reached with any collective bargaining unit, not just public safety.
Given that AB 646 is not binding and merely applies political pressure on city officials not to impose unilateral contract changes, this still appears to be a preferable course. But we recognize that there remains uncertainty in the wording of AB 646, such as an ill-defined mandate to consider a city's "financial ability," which makes it risky territory.
Measure R also has one other significant benefit. It avoids what likely would have been a bitter election fight over whether to repeal binding arbitration. This sets a positive tone for labor relations in Santa Rosa.
Measure R won't truly be tested until the city approaches an impasse with public safety bargaining units. Nonetheless, the changes proposed are promising and are far better than the status quo. They deserve the community's support.