Drawing Lines in the Sand

Cops, City Hall at Loggerheads Over New Contract

by Nick Welsh

The bad blood between the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association (POA) and City Hall over contract negotiations — which are currently at a standstill — just got a whole lot worse. After a two-hour meeting at the DoubleTree Hotel, the union membership voted for the fourth time to reject City Hall’s “best, last, and final offer.” The night before, the union’s negotiating team and executive board met for five hours at the Harbor Restaurant, concluding that a strike was not the way to go either. It is against the law for police officers to strike. Union president Mike McGrew — a 20-year veteran of the force — also ruled out any lesser job actions or work slow-downs. It’s likely, however, that officers will refuse to respond to certain calls alone in the future and will wait for backup instead. McGrew also said the union has been approached by a number of very wealthy, influential citizens who volunteered to lobby City Hall on the police officers’ behalf.

McGrew acknowledged the city’s offer of 24 percent over three years was the biggest ever, but said what it gave in increased pay, it took away in health benefits. He also cautioned that it still wasn’t enough to prevent the departure of many key, experienced officers, part of an ongoing exodus that has afflicted the department over the past several years. Many officers — especially those commuting from Ventura County — have taken jobs with the Ventura and Oxnard police departments, where the pay is higher and the drive to work much shorter.

McGrew and the POA have been holding out for a pay hike of 24.9 percent, and twice in the past six weeks they had good reason to believe they had secured the fourth City Council vote needed to prevail over the strong objections of City Administrator Jim Armstrong and the City Hall bargaining team. As councilmembers went into a special, behind-closed-doors session last Friday afternoon, McGrew had assurances that Councilmember Helene Schneider would deliver the necessary fourth vote. But once inside, Schneider balked, and the union proposal went down in flames by a 4-3 vote. About a month before, the same thing happened with Councilmember Roger Horton. Both Schneider and Horton explained they could have supported a deal hammered out between McGrew and Councilmember Brian Barnwell to give individual officers bigger pay raises by reducing the total number of budgeted officers on the force from 140 to 137. The additional money for the bigger pay hike could also be obtained by shifting certain police functions — public information and DARE to name two — from sworn officers to civilian staff, who cost City Hall less. In other words, Horton and Schneider were happy to re-slice the pie, but only as long as the pie stayed the same size. And that, they claimed, did not happen. Schneider said the union’s proposal would have cost the city’s general fund $875,000 more than the city’s offer.

Schneider said she was spooked from the deal because City Attorney Steve Wiley would not allow councilmembers to discuss the cuts that could and would be made to pay for these raises behind closed doors. And unless Schneider was certain how and where the extra money was coming from, she could not vote for the POA’s plan. Shortly after the meeting concluded, Schneider got a call from a very angry McGrew, who knew exactly what had transpired and who had said what in proceedings that by law are supposed to be strictly confidential. Schneider was upset. Horton was furious, shooting off an email to City Attorney Wiley demanding to know whether he had to attend closed session discussions in the future. Mayor Marty Blum has been quick to accuse Councilmember Iya Falcone, the cops’ strongest ally on the council, of being the source of the leak. Falcone denied it, stating, “It’s not me. It never was, no matter how many times Marty says otherwise.”

In the meantime, the cops and City Hall remain hopelessly stuck. Blum said she’s inclined to extend the city’s offer to the union one more time; after that, she said, she’d consider imposing the contract on them. In the meantime, relations between the two sides have devolved into mutual distrust and contempt, compounded by personal animosity. From the smallest detail to the largest issue, neither side can agree on much of anything. About the only point on which both sides can find common ground is that they’re relieved that the number of officers on the force is increasing. Currently, there are 131 sworn officers in the department, which was budgeted for 150 in 2001 and is now budgeted for 140.

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