Atherton layoffs delayed at last minute
• Judge issues temporary restraining order.
A judge temporarily stopped Atherton from laying off six city employees at the last minute on Friday, July 15, after hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed in San Mateo Superior Court by union representatives.
A follow-up court hearing on the issue is set for Aug. 11. In a closed-session meeting on July 12, the Atherton City Council had "affirmed the actions of the City Manager in effecting layoffs of personnel," according to a statement issued by Deputy City Clerk Theresa DellaSanta. No formal vote was taken, she said.
The council support frustrated the hope for a negotiated agreement between the town and the union trying to save jobs. The six employees who received pink slips include three from the building department, one from finance, one from administration, and one pending retirement, also from building, according to Interim City Manager John Danielson. The town had one other retirement and one resignation in recent months. Finally, five public works maintenance employees received job extensions through Aug. 31.
But the union representing the staff fought back. Peter Finn, a Teamsters Union Local 856 representative, said the union filed a lawsuit in San Mateo County Superior Court based on a section of the state government code the union claims makes it illegal for the town to outsource the jobs it has targeted.
The union, he said, asked the court for a restraining order to prevent the layoffs and the outsourcing of services. A similar case in Orange County Superior Court led to a preliminary injunction earlier this month against outsourcing of city services in Costa Mesa. According to the firm representing the employee union in that case, the lawsuit cited California Government Codes 37103 and 53060, which it interprets as prohibiting the use of private contractors for general services performed satisfactorily by city employees.
Atherton has received bids from private firms to provide the services traditionally provided by town staff. The council will be asked to approve contracts for the outsourced services as early as July 20 during its regular meeting, Mr. Danielson said.
In light of the judge's "incredibly disappointing" ruling, however, Mayor Jim Dobbie said that agenda will change. While he still expects the council to vote on the contracts, with the understanding that they won't be implemented until the lawsuit is settled, the agenda item calling for a formal vote to eliminate the city positions will be postponed until at least Aug. 11, he said.
Union representatives continue to press the town to reconsider the move toward outsourcing services, and employees have offered concessions in compensation that would save the town at least $300,000, according to Mr. Finn.
Mr. Danielson said his decision to eliminate the in-house jobs and hire private firms to provide the services stems from the need to erase an $856,000 structural budget deficit. Outsourcing, according to a staff report, saves the town approximately $760,635.
Opponents of outsourcing note that the building department is supposed to be self-funded through fees charged for permits, inspections and other services. They argue that rather than outsourcing the services, the management of the department needs fixing to keep it on track to pay for itself.
At the July 12 council meeting, several residents spoke before the closed session. Melinda Tevis and Jon Buckheit questioned the choice of jobs eliminated, noting that many if not most of the employees being axed make in the neighborhood of $60,000 annually. Police officers, on the other hand, make more than $100,000 a year, yet their jobs appear to be secure, they said.
"That doesn't seem fair," Ms. Tevis said. "Was fairness considered?"
Mr. Buckheit noted that employees being laid off offered some $300,000 in concessions, while the police officers will be asked to make only $200,000. He was referring to Mr. Danielson's statement, quoted in the Almanac, that he intends to ask the union representing police officers to reopen contract talks, and will seek concessions that will save the town about $200,000 annually.
Resident Anne Anderson said she felt "blindsided" by the move to outsource. Noting that the plan moved forward with no public discussion, she said that the elimination of in-house services and use of private contractors to provide the services "is a philosophical decision, and the town's residents should have weighed in."
Ms. Anderson encouraged the council to consider asking residents to increase the amount of parcel taxes they are paying.
Former councilman and finance specialist Malcolm Dudley told the Almanac that he and a group of other residents plan to survey the community to see if, instead of layoffs, they're willing to pay more taxes, or to launch an initiative to put the question on the ballot, once they see how the lawsuit turns out.
"Just to cast people off and turn your backs is wrong to me. That's what motivates me. You just don't treat people that way," he said. "You have people that have worked [for the city] for years, single-parent families. This could put them out on the street."
Mr. Dudley rejected the idea that the town is in a financial crisis, and analyzed 12 years' worth of budgets to support his argument. (See his column in today's Viewpoint section, Page 15.) By his calculations, the $856,000 budget deficit could be solved through union concessions, building department revenues, and restoring rentals of town properties such as the pavilion.
"To me the motivation for calling this a 'crisis' is clear. They want to justify their action as something that is forced upon them because of circumstances. My feeling is that there are two major reasons driving this action. It reflects a strong anti-union sentiment and a strong preference for outsourcing over in-house employment," Mr. Dudley said.
Mr. Danielson responded that no matter what someone calls it, the town spends more than it takes in. Even by outsourcing the positions now in jeopardy, city management will still need to seek concessions from both union and non-union employees going forward to be sustainable, he said. "I don't want to lay off anyone in this town again."
The Atherton City Council will meet Wednesday, July 20, to consider an outsourcing contract for public works, emergency staffing of the building department, and a resolution hiring a temporary police chief at a salary of $14,500 per month. Town staff is recommending that the council award a contract for public works maintenances services to MCE Corp. for no more than $599,000. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the town council chambers, 94 Ashfield Road in Atherton.