For the first time in 10 years, the politically powerful unions representing Santa Barbara city cops and firefighters have agreed to join forces to oppose the slate of three incumbent and more conservative councilmembers running for reelection — Dale Francisco, Randy Rowse, and Michael Self. Instead, the two unions, known colloquially as the guns and hoses coalition, decided to back two of the three candidates backed by the Democratic Central Committee — former councilmember Iya Falcone and current Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz. While those endorsements were expected, the big surprise was that the two unions endorsed Sharon Byrne, a community activist now running the Milpas Community Association.
Byrne, until recently, had been closely aligned with the conservative incumbents with whom she worked on limiting the number of medical marijuana dispensaries and increasing enforcement of laws targeting homeless street crime. With the endorsement from the public safety unions, Byrne finds herself elevated from outsider candidate with spoiler potential to a genuine threat. The endorsement gives Byrne — who sought elected office by crashing the party rather than pursuing more traditional routes — the good housekeeping seal of political respectability. For Democratic voters, there’s the union appeal. For Republicans, it provides law-and-order street cred. And for cash-strapped campaigns, the two unions combined are good for about $100,000 — to be split among the three candidates — not to mention the impressive cadre of precinct walkers that cops and firefighters can be. Byrne is running as an independent, hoping to peel off votes among Democrats and Republicans disaffected with the toxic partisanship in both Washington and Sacramento. Her campaign manager, Andrew Russo out of Monterey, is best suited to help her with Republicans and conservatives. To help with Democrats and liberals, Byrne will consult with Olivia Uribe, a high-profile activist in the Democratic Central Committee.
According to representatives from both unions, Falcone, who enjoyed unusually close relations with the two unions during her two terms in office, was all but a shoo-in. Schwartz brought to the table an impeccable political pedigree — her mother, Naomi Schwartz, is a former county supervisor and major player in Democratic and environmental circles. But Schwartz worked exceptionally hard to court the cops and firefighters, intensely studying their issues of concern. The real suspense was always over the third endorsement. Although there are 10 candidates running for three seats, the real debate among the unions centered on incumbents Rowse and Self, and Cathy Murillo — backed by the Democratic machine — and Byrne.
Representatives from both unions were genuinely impressed that Byrne, during her relatively brief period of civic activism, has been a loud and effective hell-raiser, agitating always for more cops. But to endorse Byrne, the Police Officers Association (POA) had to turn its back on incumbent Councilmember Self, whom they’d endorsed in the last election. The firefighters never had any interest in Self, whom they regarded as too conservative and too outspoken, but the cops were torn. Self had opposed unilaterally imposing a new contract on the POA after an impasse was declared in the most recent round of negotiations between the cops and City Hall when other councilmembers, like fellow conservative Francisco, were willing to. But she alienated the cops when she called for an independent investigation of allegations of police misconduct by Officer Kasi Beutel in response to the 13-part series appearing in the front pages of the News-Press. Cops hold such investigations in the same disregard they hold civilian review boards. Likewise, Self won few friends within the POA by sharply questioning the wisdom of the City Hall’s since-discontinued employee housing loan program. Many cops, including POA President Eric Beecher, bought their homes with such City Hall loans.
But Self’s real offense with guns and hoses was her close political alignment with Francisco, the clear leader of the conservative faction now controlling a slim council majority. (That, too, proved the undoing of Rowse, owner of the Paradise Café and fixture of the downtown business world.) Francisco, the only registered Republican on the incumbent slate, has blamed public employee unions, in large measure, with bankrupting the State of California. Likewise, he’s charged that public unions wield undue influence in local politics by contributing to the campaigns of candidates who will be amenable to their terms and conditions at the bargaining table. “It’s not a surprise,” said Self, “but I think for them it’s not a good decision.” Self noted that during the 10 years the “so-called progressives” controlled the council, “the number of officers was going down like a rocket ship. The department was bleeding officers.”
In that time, the number of officers dropped from a high of 151, at least on paper, to a low of 137. But in the one year the conservatives have been in office, she said, the council increased the number of sworn cops from 137 to 141. Councilmember Francisco put it more bluntly: “The endorsement makes it clear what this is about. It’s not about improving response times when citizens call. It’s not about public safety. It’s all about the money. It’s only about the money.”
In his campaign kickoff two weeks ago, Francisco boasted that the new, and more conservative, council had actually increased the number of cops — by four — authorized in the budget. One new additional sworn officer was authorized and funded; three new outreach workers were funded to deal with the homeless and thus, at least theoretically, free sworn officers to deal with more serious crime. In addition, the budget will pay for six “hosts,” city employees who will patrol State Street, the waterfront, and Milpas Street to help keep street people in line. And lastly, at Francisco’s instigation, the council authorized — but did not fund — three additional cops on top of that. The money, presumably, will come later, but from where — for a city government looking at a $3-million shortfall — remains unknown.
The POA is positively dismissive of such claims. The new cop, the union says, will focus exclusively on homeless-related crime, and the outreach workers and hosts will probably need to be rescued from out-of-control street people. Most critically, the POA remains convinced that the money is there — hidden within all of City Hall’s many accounts and funds — to pay for more cops without cutting the budgets of other departments. City Administrator Jim Armstrong, they claim, has set out to bleed the department since he first took the helm 10 years ago. They dismiss the staffing increases that Francisco will tout in his campaign as empty political stagecraft and dangerously misleading to public safety. “The money is there to get the cops and provide the public safety the city needs and what our officers need to be safe,” said Beecher. “This endorsement is not about our next contract. It’s about whether we have a city council that will tell Jim Armstrong that the money’s there.”
Armstrong, in previous comments, has disputed such assertions. The number of cops, he said, dropped from 145 in 2003 to 136 in 2010. During the same time, he said, City Hall’s expenditure on the Police Department increased from $17.7 million to $28.6 million.