The Santa Barbara Police Officers Association, the union representing city police officers and non-sworn officers, held a misty morning press conference last Friday on Stearns Wharf to announce its endorsement of council candidates Bendy White, Gregg Hart, and Jason Nelson, extolling the threesome for their commitment to public safety. In years past, the POA endorsement served as the political equivalent of the Good Houskeeping Seal of Approval and was nearly worth its weight in gold. In recent years, however, the union’s endorsement — let alone the endorsement of any public employee union — has become more of a mixed blessing.
Of the three candidates the union endorsed, only White is an incumbent, now running for his second term. When White ran for office four years ago, the union conspicuously did not endorse him and backed Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss instead. Hotchkiss is also running for reelection, but the POA has opted not to back him for a second term. “We don’t always see eye to eye with Councilmember Hotchkiss,” said Sergeant Eric Beecher, spokesperson for the POA. “And over the years we’ve developed a relationship with Councilmember White.”
As City Hall has weathered the recession over the past four years, administrators have pushed the POA to accept serious concessions and have its members make bigger contributions to their own retirement pensions. Administrators argued that public safety employees have traditionally paid less into their retirement accounts than other city workers and that they are able to retire at a younger age than other city employees with heftier pensions. The POA has countered that this will require its members to accept a de facto pay cut, an assertion city administrators challenge. Although White is a moderate liberal and Hotchkiss is a well-known Republican, both have taken an equally hard line with the union on this matter, though White — at least by reputation — has proven more approachable than Hothkiss over the years. When Hotchkiss was asked if he could account for the union’s change of heart — and what difference he thought it might make for his campaign — he commented via email, “I have no idea.”
The biggest departure in the POA’s action was its endorsement of Jason Nelson, an energetic, hard-charging political outsider hoping to parlay his military experience — he served a tour of duty in Afghanistan — into a council seat. Unlike most mainstream candidates, Nelson has never served a stint on any of City Hall’s many citizen volunteer committees. Beecher said Nelson did much better than anyone expected he’d do during the POA candidates’ interviews, that he’s got his campaign plan dialed in, and that as a military man he understands the paramilitary culture of the police department.
During an exchange with reporters afterward, Nelson caused Councilmember White’s eyes to bug out when he revealed he thought the department needed 20 more officers. That’s far in excess of the number batted around by even the department’s most ardent supporters. The minimum cost to the city’s budget would be $2 million a year, and Nelson said the funds could be amassed by eliminating “redundancies” in other departments and by charging the city’s many special functions that raise revenues through their services and are not supported by the city’s general fund.
While candidate Gregg Hart appeared to blanch at the size of Nelson’s suggestion, he too agreed that more officers were needed. He declined to say how many more or how the additional positions would be funded, but he said the department should deploy more cops to State Street to allay public unease over the presence of street people and aggressive panhandlers. Hart, who served two terms on the council from 1996 to 2003, has a long collaborative history with the POA, which in the past had supported Hart with great enthusiasm and generosity.
White took pains to stress that not all the candidates endorsed by the POA were on the same page. His watchword was “fairness,” pledging only to dispense City Hall’s expanding resources with “fairness” as the recession ebbs. Around City Hall, that term is loaded with hidden meaning and is typically used by individuals who believe public safety employees were protected during the recession at the expense of general employees. White noted that even during the recession, the council approved the expansion of the force by three new officer positions and that the council authorized Chief Cam Sanchez to “overhire” new officers to reduce the service gap that occurs when an experienced officer retires and a new officer is hired to fill that gap. Likewise, White highlighted the council’s decision to start a “restorative justice” program to deal with the homeless, deploying one full-time cop coupled with a handful of non-sworn social workers to connect those on the streets with the appropriate social services and another handful to assuage the concerns of shop owners that inappropriate behavior by street people will be addressed.
During the POA press conference not a word was uttered regarding the mayoral race, pitting incumbent Helene Schneider against Wayne Scoles, a vocal gadfly and neighborhood activist from the Mesa who has frequently complained that city police aren’t doing enough about street gangs, homeless, or illegal immigrants. Scoles, to date, has not raised enough money to trigger campaign reporting requirements, and Schneider is considered all but a shoo-in. The POA’s Beecher said the union is endorsing the mayor, but he said Friday’s focus was on the council race. He added that the union expects to spend about $50,000 on behalf of its chosen candidates but that union members will probably not be walking as much as they have in years past. Now that City Council races are conducted via write-in ballots, he said it’s harder to calibrate when to dispatch union precinct walkers to voters’ neighborhoods.
In years past, the police endorsement was frequently made in conjunction with the firefighters unions, the famed “Guns and Hoses” ticket. This year, the police and firefighters have chosen to pursue separate endorsement paths, though it remains to be seen which candidates the firefighters will back.