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For connoisseurs of the Frantic and Frenzied Fullerton politics of the recent past, last night’s City Council meeting was a special treat. It had everything — conflict, drama, humor, threats, ripostes, people who can’t follow instructions (including a defensive council member), suspense — and an earthquake that caused no damage. I heard people complaining last night, as most of the audience filed out around 11:30 after the critical vote of the day, about how late they had had to stay to see the matter at hand resolved. Come on, folks! This was democracy in action; enjoy it!
To get a sense of what the chambers and the spillover area in the City Hall looked like, you have to imagine he scene at right multiplies by 50 or more. Peacock blue t-shirts were yours for the asking; at least 75% of the audience was wearing them — as was, after the break, 20% of the City Council. (Doug Chaffee received an ovation when he put one on.) Judging from the speakers, another 20% might as well have been wearing them. Several members of Kelly’s Army were prominent supporters of the FPD (and of Interim Chief Dan Hughes specifically), saying that they had found him to be reasonable, responsible, and cooperative over the past year.
I’ll cut to the end of the chase: the City Council voted 3-2 not to seek a bid (or an initial report or something of the kind) from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department about the possible provision of police services to Fullerton — a move that would entail disbanding the Fullerton Police Department.
Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva and Councilman Doug Chaffee were against seeking what would be the basis for a bid — noting that three years remain in Fullerton’s contract with the F.P.D. and that, while they opposed the motion, they also considered it to be premature. (Starting renegotiations with a threat to disband the department, sort of the nuclear bomb of negotiation, was seen by many speakers as a somewhat rude and confrontational posture towards the police.)
Mayor Pro-Tem Bruce Whitaker and Councilman Travis Kiger favored the proposal to see information from OCSD. For Kiger, the issue seemed to be less one of the desirability of the OCSD as the benefits of getting leverage with FPOA in labor negotiations. (This is a good point for my disclosure: I spoke against Kiger’s position on this point and others; I share a campaign office with Democrats including Sharon Quirk-Silva, though our operations are at arm’s length; my daughter is keeping the books for one of the Council candidates; etc.) Both of them are up for re-election in November (along with a replacement for Quirk-Silva, who is leaving office to run for Assembly against Whitaker’s boss Chris Norby); even though the proposal failed, their cards are now on the table, making possible replacement of the FPD a likely prominent issue for November.
Two of their November opponents, Democrats Jan Flory and Kitty Jaramillo, spoke against the proposal — although formal Councilmember Flory taunted them a bit, saying that she hoped that she would pass the proposal because it would mean that her campaign against them would be a cakewalk. That theory will probably get put to the test; while Whitaker and Kiger can’t be charged with putting into action the murder of the F.P.D., they did enough last night to warrant a charge of attempted murder. (To be fair, neither of them said that they would necessarily go with an OCSD bid over FPD; they just said that they wanted to see the price tag. I agree with them that that doesn’t really qualify as even “attempted murder” of the F.P.D. — I just don’t think that voters will agree.)
Flory’s trenchant speech to the Council clearly got under Whitaker’s skin, who defensively said that he should be able to speak then and there to rebut (or at least denounce) the “political” speech of a prospective opponent. This put Mayor Quirk-Silva into “fourth-grade teacher mode” for at least the second time I saw last night, asking Whitaker to wait his turn before responding. Eventually, Whitaker wore her out and had his say against Flory, which I presume will mean a stint in detention.
(The first such instance of Mayor Sharon lowering the hammer came during public comments, when Ron Thomas wanted to finish off his speech by addressing the F.P.D. issue — he favors retaining them — and was told that he couldn’t address an agenda item during public comment and would have to come back. Thomas “yes but” attempts to sneak in his sentiments despite the Mayor’s admonishments drew laughter from the crowd in the lobby.)
All of this was prelude to Sebourn’s turn to speak and cast the deciding vote. He was clearly of two minds about this — believing that the city should be able to get information from the OCSD — “no harm in asking, after all,” one might say — but thinking that the timing might be wrong. He also noted that Councilmembers could get the needed information from other sources, including the OCSD directly. (Just be aware of the Brown Act, Greg!)
As many speakers (especially those with the FPOA and its sister organizations, there was little reason to get numbers now for a bid that wouldn’t take place until 2014 — and little reason to trust the figures from the OCSD as being (1) reliable or (2) indicative of the service that would be provided. Yorba Linda’s recent experience with moving from being serviced by the Brea P.D. to the OCSD, and the problems they’re allegedly having with increases in costs and deficiencies in service, was cited often — and of course in doing so Yorba Linda wasn’t considering anything as dramatic as disbanding its own longstanding police force.
As for the timing issue — not only is the information not yet likely to be useful, but there is a harm in asking for it now: going for three more years with a pissed-off and perhaps demotivated police force. (The only real timing issue seems to be that this is the only time when the Bushala/Norby/Whitaker forces can be assured of having a majority; Kiger in particular is thought to be vulnerable in November.) On balance, the lack of gain and the prospect of loss tilted Sebourn to the “not yet” position, which on this particular question turned out to be “no.”
All was quiet in the room when Sebourn spoke — and as he spoke the room itself trembled. Yes, amazingly enough, the tectonic plates beneath Yorba Linda chose this precise moment to jolt the room twice, maybe half a minute apart. Sebourn handled it with aplomb as Quirk-Silva dispatched the fire chief to ensure that the room was safe enough for them to continue the meeting. Some rueful laughter punctuated the room, Sebourn wondering aloud whether it might be some sort of omen (and perhaps wondering privately if Tony Bushala really can control such things.) In my opinion, though, it was less an omen than a metaphor for the shake-up to come.
Sebourn has been a darling of the FFFF blog — although apparently he’s been seen as a little too independent-minded. (I’ve also heard from supporters of his ideological opponents on the Council that he was someone who was responsible and could be reasoned with.) The FFFFsters were FFFFrantic and FFFFurious today, accusing Sebourn of betraying his campaign promises. To anyone who actually heard him speak, this was absurd. He is clearly as devoted to his libertarian colleagues to the notion that government needs to be cut back and that pension obligations particularly are a particular problem. He just doesn’t conclude from that that every solution that someone puts forward at any given time is necessarily worth immediately supporting.
Sebourn said something else at the meeting that I think bears mention because it is so admirable and politically wrong. After having pissed off his fellow libertarians by voting with the FPD supporters, he chastised the very people packing the audience whose appreciation he had just won, saying that he found it disturbing that people would be against the simple act of seeking information. (If he was jumping ship, it was while wearing a bungee cord.)
There’s surely something to that — but there’s also something against it, which I think speaks to what now looks like a major issue looming in November. It comes down to whether people feel that they have a relationship, beyond a simple business arrangement, with the F.P.D.
Consider how the notion that “there’s no harm in seeking information” works with relationships that matter to us. Consider a wife going onto a dating site and telling her husband “I’m not saying that I want to leave you or that I plan on cheating on you while we’re married; I just want to find out if someone else is interested in me who might be a better provider.” That is “just seeking information,” but it would not go over well, would it? (There are less dramatic examples of this, of course; I’ve even gotten into trouble when telling one mechanic that I was thinking of seeing a different mechanic.) Existing relationships matter.
Of course, the libertarian critics are right in saying that if one is not prepared to step out, one invites abuse. Still, there is wisdom in not packing one’s bags three years ahead of the time one might leave. Those can be three very long years.
Kiger pretty much out and says that what he’s seeking is additional leverage with the union — despite the fact that, unless he wins re-election, he will not be one of the ones negotiating with them. It’s not hard to imagine that the current contract is too favorable to police; one of the strongest points made by the critics was that past relations between Council and police have been so friendly that the contract has really never gone through serious scrutiny in negotiations. Some non-trivial specific criticisms have been leveled — for example, that the department is overburdened with management. By all means, let’s talk that one ut.
Certainly, there’s no problem with saying that Fullerton should want a contract that is about as good, in terms of “bang for the buck,” as that of its other peer cities. I hope that the next council will be willing to cast a jaundiced eye at the contract, just as I hope that all sources of fat in a government budget receive special scrutiny. But there are ways to do it and ways not to do it. What we saw Tuesday night was a way not to do it.
Greg Sebourn may get slammed — actually, there’s no “may” about it, he is getting slammed — by his FFFFster colleagues for his vote, but he did the right thing by not going along with the program this time. He and Chaffee will be involved in negotiating the contract — and they will face the voters in 2014 to be judged on how well they perform at that, not on what happened last night.