Santa Rosa's police and fire fighters deserve to have contract disputes settled by a third party, as long as the city can truly afford it.

That was the determination Thursday of the panel exploring changes to the city's by laws, which since 1996 have required public safety contract disputes to be settled by a panel of three arbitrators.

Supporters of the measure say it puts police and fire fighters – who unlike other workers are not allowed to go on strike – on an even playing field with city negotiators.

Critics claim the requirement, particularly the provision saying workers are entitled to pay and benefits comparable to similar cities, gives the unions too much power and is responsible for soaring compensation levels for the two groups.

But the 21-member Charter Review Committee felt tweaking the arbitration process would be better than scrapping it altogether. The panel voted to accept changes that were crafted by a subcommittee, a group that included leaders of the police and fire unions.

"I think we get a lot with this bargain," said panel member Doug Bosco.

The committee accepted three major changes to the charter language. One is to clearly define what the city's "ability to pay" means. Arbitrators are currently told to consider this factor in their decisions, but City Attorney Caroline Fowler has said that language is too vague.

The new language, if put on the ballot by the City Council and approved by voters in November, requires the arbitrator to consider a number of factors regarding the city's financial health. These include layoffs of city workers, a declaration of a financial emergency, a deficit in the city's general fund, an inability to pay its debts, the condition of the city's roads, parks and other infrastructure, and the city's bond rating.

Another change would reduce the arbitration panel from three to one, if both sides agree, in an effort to save money. Another would also restrict the arbitration process to labor contract disputes with unions, not personnel matters raised by an individual member.

The executive boards of three unions representing public safety workers signed a letter supporting the changes. Tim Aboudara, a spokesman for the Santa Rosa Firefighters Union, said the subcommittee worked hard to craft language everyone could agree on.

"In our opinion, there was really no stone left unturned here," Aboudara said.

The measure passed 12-3.

Several members noted that if binding arbitration were repealed, public safety workers would still be subject to a flawed and costly "fact-finding" process recently approved by the state Legislature for all public employees.

Committee member Bob Andrews, who voted against the measure, made an impassioned appeal for the panel to repeal binding arbitration outright.

"I think this is the most important vote of our entire work here," he said.

Andrews argued strenuously that repealing binding arbitration made more sense than trying to tweak it. Cities like Vallejo, Palo Alto and San Luis Obispo all determined that repeal was the best option, he said.

He noted that since 1996, police and fire compensation levels have skyrocketed and the fire department gets 1,500 applications for a single position.

Andrews made a motion to repeal binding arbitration outright, but it was rejected by the same margin, 12-3. Panel members Ann Gray Byrd and Ida Johnson also voted with Andrews against revisions and in favor of repeal.

"Bob Andrews is way off base," said Alan Schellerup, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, after the meeting.

He said neither the city nor the unions have ever sought to use the process, and noted police officers in the city are paid 6 percent less than their counterparts in comparable cities.

Asked if the unions would have challenged repeal at the ballot box, both suggested it would have been likely.

"Thankfully, we do not have to make that decision," Aboudara said.