Contract by Initiative

City Cops Might Take Case to Ballot Box

by Nick Welsh

Frustrated by a lack of results at the bargaining table, Santa Barbara city police are now considering whether or not to take their demand for better wages and benefits directly to the voters in a special election, bypassing negotiations with city administrators altogether. According to Detective Mike McGrew, spokesperson for the Police Officers Association, a recent poll of 400 city voters indicated that 73 percent would support a ballot initiative requiring city police to be paid on par with officers in comparable agencies. “That’s a lot of wind at our back we didn’t know we had,” McGrew said, though he stressed the union remains committed to further negotiations and mediation with City Hall. But when police in San Luis Obispo took a similar initiative to the ballot box 10 years ago, McGrew said, they secured a pay increase they couldn’t win at the bargaining table.

Talk of a proposed ballot initiative was initially overshadowed by the crowd of police officers, their spouses, and their children who packed the City Council chambers well beyond the legal limit early Tuesday afternoon. There, McGrew gently but firmly reminded the council of the union’s discontent. A former officer, Casey Nicholson, who left seven years ago to work on the Simi Valley police force, said he loved working here, but could never afford to buy a home in Santa Barbara. As a Simi officer, he now makes more money, commutes only four miles to work — and owns a home.

McGrew contends that unless City Hall coughs up a 26 percent pay hike over the next three years, more officers will leave. Twenty have left the department in the past year, he claimed, more than half of whom transferred to other law enforcement agencies, lured by higher pay and shorter commutes. Of those, he said, four took jobs with the City of Ventura. “We’re losing people every day,” McGrew said. “Our people are burned out. To the extent we can turn that around, this contract pretty much shapes our department for many years to come.”

City administrators — worried about dipping too deeply into reserves and about setting a precedent for other unions — have offered the police a 19 percent raise over the next three years. Their argument is that almost every police department throughout California is experiencing retention and turnover problems, but in Santa Barbara no raise — no matter how lavish — can make home ownership a possibility for most officers. By contrast, they argue, giving the union a 33 percent pay increase — that’s with the expanded medical benefits factored in — could hurt the city’s finances. Even McGrew concedes the union is asking for a lot of money. “But if we want to remain a full-service police department and provide the sort of services people have come to expect, we’re going to have to make some tough choices. We’re going to have to choose between ballroom dancing and public safety.”

Some in City Hall resent what they consider the union’s scare tactics. Mayor Marty Blum, who has locked horns with McGrew and the union in the past, said she was aware of the police union survey because her husband was one of the people polled. “But I have a little survey of my own about how many police departments have contracted with the Sheriff’s Department for public safety options,” she said. “That’s always an option — not a good one, but a fall-back position if things fall apart. But right now the police are doing a good job and we have a low crime rate.” Not everyone on the council agrees with Blum’s hard-line posture. Councilmember Das Williams, the elected city official given the highest approval rating in the survey, cautioned that taking the contract negotiations to the streets would not be in either the union’s or City Hall’s best interest. “I think everyone needs to be much more realistic and much more reasonable,” he said. “And by ‘everyone,’ I mean both sides.”

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