Guest opinion: Jury report off base, councilwoman says
The 2009 San Mateo County Grand Jury report on county-wide employee costs addressed a serious problem facing fiduciary stewards of cities. Unfortunately, the report was largely inaccurate, and particularly unfair regarding Menlo Park. It oversimplified and locally politicized this important issue.
Normally, grand jury investigators interview credible sources, including professional city staff, to create a sound factual basis for reports. Instead, this report neglected such sources, relying heavily on opinion pieces and newspaper articles, particularly by the Palo Alto Daily Post. Consequently, the report is replete with errors and misstatements, requiring over four pages of corrections by city staff. The report is over-eager to find fault and guided by ideology rather than facts.
The reality is that many cities, including Menlo Park, have actively pursued a balance between controlling employee costs and ensuring an ability to recruit and retain quality employees with competitive wages and benefits. If we ignore this balance, we'll lose our best and brightest, and lower the quality of service provided to the public.
Menlo Park has demonstrated leadership in controlling employee costs and in public involvement:
• 2008 — City manager starts working closely with the Municipal Employee Relations Committee (MERC) to develop and evaluate employee cost policy options;
• 2008 — The city pre-funds its post-retirement medical obligation, saving taxpayers $370,000 annually;
• 2009 — City Council continues its practice of taking public input in advance of employee union (SEIU/AFSCME) negotiations;
• 2009-10 — City budget freezes salaries and allocates $0 for raises;
• Ongoing — limiting extent of post-retirement medical coverage limits spending.
Instead of acknowledging this pro-active record, the report takes particular aim at Menlo Park, its staff, and employee unions. Why?
One of the principal authors is a former Menlo Park council member, one of two defeated in their 2006 re-election bid. Instead of accepting the voters' will, they both keep trying to make scapegoats of city employees and unions.
Their campaign war chest was funded generously by developers. Did that make them ineligible to participate in land use decisions? Their assertion that accepting union contributions disqualifies council members from employee compensation decisions is without merit. They accepted union funds themselves.
But watch them try to tar and feather any candidate who has any hint of labor support in the 2010 election. Already, one former council member is quoting the report in a misleading way, citing the grand jury to give her statements a false aura of credibility.
I have the highest regard for the grand jury's track record and its citizen volunteers, so I hate to see the institution abused this way. I was surprised and disappointed by the lack of balance and lack of recognition in the report for the positive strides cities have taken. Sadly, this issue is being politicized in a way which doesn't advance the interests of taxpayers.
Looking ahead, despite the report's shortcomings, several of its recommendations are reasonable. The employee relations committee is analyzing these topics and is the better forum for a rational, informed, and orderly assessment of policy options for further controlling employee costs.
Kelly Fergusson is a member of the Menlo Park City Council.