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The Surreal Council

In the fight over police, some Oakland politicians do an about-face.

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Last week's Oakland City Council meeting was like watching a 2011 version of The Twilight Zone. For much of the past two decades, Ignacio De La Fuente has been known as the city's law-and-order councilman, and the Oakland police union has repeatedly backed his runs for office, including his 2006 bid for mayor. Nancy Nadel, by contrast, has earned a reputation over the years as being an ultra-liberal councilwoman, a champion of social justice and violence prevention — not of the cops.

And yet during the surreal June 30 council meeting, Nadel was pushing to hire more police officers in Oakland, arguing that the force is dangerously understaffed, while De La Fuente repeatedly pounded the table, refusing to hire more cops than Mayor Jean Quan had already planned to do. He also sharply criticized his longtime ally, the police union, contending that it had not made enough concessions at the bargaining table. In an interview, De La Fuente chuckled when reminded of the strange scenario. "Absolutely, it was weird," he admitted.

The city finally adopted a balanced budget when Quan broke a 4-4 tie after two groups of councilmembers had difficulty reaching an agreement on a few issues, including whether to hire more police. The two groups had already agreed on much of the budget, deciding that the city employee concessions would allow them to not close libraries and not make deep cuts to parks, arts funding, and tree maintenance. However, Nadel and Councilwomen Rebecca Kaplan, Pat Kernighan, and Libby Schaaf also argued for hiring more than the 22 police officers that Quan had proposed.

The Kaplan-Kernighan-Nadel-Schaaf argument made sense, considering that Oakland now has fewer cops than it's had in years. The councilwomen noted it would be much cheaper for the city to immediately rehire 44 officers who were laid off last year and are still interested in jobs, because Oakland wouldn't have to spend time and money putting cadets through an academy. "It's a rare opportunity to hire police without spending several million dollars in a year and a half to get them," Kernighan noted.

But the second council group, which included De La Fuente, Desley Brooks, Jane Brunner, and Larry Reid, countered that they were not convinced that the city's finances were healthy enough to afford more officers than Quan had proposed. Quan, in the end, came down on the side of this second group, saying she was concerned the two sides would never reach agreement. And so for now, Oakland has a balanced budget and will get 22 new cops on the force — assuming that all the tentative agreements are approved by the unions' rank-and-file members this week. One union, Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, approved their deal last week.

Yet while Quan sided with his group, De La Fuente remains unhappy. He made it clear at the meeting that he will oppose final approval of the police union contract. De La Fuente repeatedly argued that the cops' union had not agreed to a "fair share" deal as the other unions had, and contended that it was "unsustainable."

The double irony, of course, was that as council president De La Fuente originally negotiated the generous contracts with the police union that he now says are unaffordable. "It's an issue of good times and bad times," he said in an interview, noting that the prior deals were made before the economic downturn. "I don't regret voting for those contracts — but I also don't regret that in bad times that we need to get [the money] back."

But is the cops' tentative deal "unfair" as De La Fuente contends? Well, leaders of the other city unions apparently don't think it is. De La Fuente's biggest objection to the cops' union contract (which calls for police to begin paying 9 percent of their pensions for the first time) is a provision that would give officers 2 percent raises in 2014 and 2015. But the other unions were told at the bargaining about the raises and it didn't stop them from making their deals. The other unions understood that police were originally awarded those raises three years ago and had already agreed to delay them. "They got that through an arbitration award; it was supposed to take effect in 2008, but they opened up their contract and agreed to put it off, and now they're doing it again," Jeff Levin of Local 21 said of the cops' raise. Levin explained further that all of the unions tentatively agreed to put off promised raises — or their financial equivalent — for the next two to three years, including the cops, whose first 2 percent increase won't kick in until July 1, 2014.

Others critics of the cops' deal, meanwhile, have complained about language that would prevent councilmembers from backing ballot measures that would impact police working conditions. De La Fuente admitted, however, that the cops' union demanded the provision after a few councilmembers proposed a ballot measure that would have stripped the police union of its right to binding arbitration. In other words, the cops had a justification for wanting that provision. And De La Fuente said he would never support such a measure anyway. Indeed, it would be foolhardy for any councilmember to circumvent the collective bargaining process and try to get voters to approve things they couldn't get through negotiations — after agreeing to a deal at the table, both De La Fuente and Levin agreed. It's called "bad-faith" bargaining and it could spoil any hope of reaching further concessions from the city's unions.

So if the cops' deal isn't that bad, what's De La Fuente's beef with it? Some City Hall insiders suspect that the councilman's real aim is to blow up all of the tentative union deals in an attempt to deny Quan, his longtime political foe, a budgetary victory. After all, if one of the other unions refuses to ratify its deal because it thinks the cops' contract is unfair, then all of the agreements could go south. De La Fuente, however, said the allegation that he wants to create political chaos for Quan is "bullshit."

Regardless, there is a case to be made that the police deal is not perfect, although not for the reasons De La Fuente has publicly cited. While the deal appears to be fair compared to the other agreements, it will likely block the city from significantly expanding its police force. The reason is that it doesn't solve the problem of Oakland not being able to hire more police because its current cops make too much money. The average cop in the city costs taxpayers more than $190,000 a year in pay, benefits, and retirement — far higher than other cities.

Although the new deal includes a pension plan for new cops that costs the city less money and it calls for rookie cops to be hired at a lower rate of pay than they currently are, their pay goes up to current levels after one year, De La Fuente noted. Moreover, the cops' deal lasts for too long — four years — so it delays dealing with the problem. In short, it may be fair, but it may not be affordable — if your goal is to have more police.

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