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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