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Council Debates Outside Hiring

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 9 -- Invoking the City's new slogan touting better customer service -- "We do the right thing, right" -- municipal workers urged Santa Monica officials this weekend to rein in the use of contract workers.

"It's hard for (contractors) to do the right thing right," Ken Ward, the lead traffic signal technician told the City Council at a special council meeting Saturday. "We will do the right thing right."

A Municipal Employees Association board member, Ward was one of a handful of city workers who awoke early on their day off to voice concerns over contracting, one of several items discussed -- but not acted upon -- at the meeting described as a workshop.

"I'm here to stop the outsourcing, the contracting out of our jobs which has hurt the residents of Santa Monica and the employees," Ward told The Lookout.

The request led to a council debate on whether outside hiring, though economical, is the right thing to do.

Currently, 5 percent of the City's total operating budget, or $16 million a year, is used on contracted services, such as janitorial and landscaping. Such spending is separate from more technical and specialized contracted "professional services," such as preparing environmental studies.

According to figures cited at the meeting, parking operations -- the largest chunk parceled out -- costs the city $3.2 million each year in contracts. Landscaping came in second with $2.2 million.

Other contracts include temporary employees at $1 million a year, while janitorial services ring in at nearly $800,000 each year.

Under the current procedures, City officials use a checklist to determine whether to contract out for services.

Among the factors weighed are flexibility, cost, worker benefits and whether a service provider is available, City officials said. Officials also consider if there is a need for expertise, or if there are customer service or “proprietary control” issues.

"I just want to make sure you know what your policy is,” City Manager Lamont Ewell told the council and City employees. "This is so we are not whip-sawed every time we come to you with contract workers."

And while City officials said they first look inside City Hall to see if a job can be done by municipal workers, some council members sided with municipal employees and backed the idea of keeping more of those millions of dollars in salaries in-house.

"We could take the Wal-mart approach -- minimize cost, minimize cost -- but who ends up paying in the end?" Council Member Ken Genser said. "The factor should first be to be as responsible as we can, then the criteria is, when are those exceptions when we should contract out."

Kevin McKeown, an outspoken supporter of local unions, also sided with the City workers.

"What (the City) is doing is a see-saw, a balancing approach," McKeown said.

He noted that in many of the decisions to contract out, including tree trimming and expanded janitorial services, there appeared to be almost an equal number of checks in favor of contracting as there were against.

"It should take a strong preponderance to contract out," McKeown suggested.

However, to others on the council, such as Bobby Shriver and Herb Katz, the actual cost savings to taxpayers should be the determining factor.

"Do we feel right about spending twice the amount for taxpayers to accomplish an objective?" asked Shriver, who suggested the city should look at contracting practices in other municipalities.

"I'm not seeing this the way my two adversaries are," Katz said, referring to council members Genser and McKeown. "In many instances it is a lot less expensive to contract out."

Such divisions within the council could lead to future showdowns on the issue.




"We could take the Wal-mart approach -- minimize cost, minimize cost -- but who ends up paying in the end?" Ken Genser


"Do we feel right about spending twice the amount for taxpayers to accomplish an objective?" Bobby Shriver


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