There’s one lesson the Merry-Go-Round has learned about reviewing Council agendas since Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft became mayor: Don’t overlook the items on the “consent calendar.”
If you do, you might miss something important – like, say, a staff recommendation that will result in a $5.43 million increase in the police department budget over the next three years.
Anyone who skipped over the agenda for last Tuesday’s consent calendar wouldn’t have seen the item asking Council to approve a new 42‑month contract with the police officers’ union. The MOU provides for a 4 percent raise retroactive to January 2, 2022, followed by a 2.5 percent raise effective in July 2022, an additional 3 percent raise effective in July 2023, and an additional 3 percent raise effective in July 2024. In addition, it increases retention pay for an officer with five years of service to 1.5 percent of base salary and bilingual pay to $100 per month.
The staff report summarized the financial impact on the General Fund budget this way:
Now, we would be the last to argue that our local cops don’t deserve a raise. In any event, staff – primarily Human Resources Director Nancy Bronstein and Assistant City Manager Gerry Beaudin – made a persuasive case for the pay increases. Among other things, they pointed out that:
- Alameda police officers are underpaid compared to their colleagues in other cities. “When we started to negotiate this contract,” Ms. Bronstein said, “one of the issues that we were facing was recognizing that we had fallen below the marketplace in salary.” A survey conducted by staff showed that Alameda police salaries were 3 percent below the median (and 6 percent below the average) of salaries paid in comparable Bay Area cities, she reported.
- Lest anyone forget, the police department hasn’t been able to employ as many officers as it is authorized to do for many years. (The shortfall goes back as far as 2005.) Higher pay alone may not solve the problem, but, as Ms. Bronstein put it, “what you’re seeing here is an effort to for the City to remain competitive to be able to recruit and retain existing staff.”
- The City expects to have enough money to pay for the raises without having to tap the General Fund reserve. Mr. Beaudin stated that staff recently had completed a five‑year forecast in which it assumed a 3.5 percent annual salary increase. He was “fairly certain” that the projected tax revenue would cover an increase of that size, “so we believe that we’re in a position to be able to move forward with the contract as recommended.”
In addition, as Mayor Ashcraft noted, the pay increases provided in the MOU are fixed percentages rather than percentages computed using the infamous “Balanced Revenue Index” that gave firefighters and cops an annual bump of up to 5 percent depending on the extent of the increase in tax revenue over the prior year. (For fiscal year 2020‑2021, the raise was 3.88 percent.)
It was, however, curious to see this item placed on the consent calendar.
According to the rules of order written by Ms. Ashcraft and Councilman John Knox White and approved by Council in February 2021, the consent calendar is supposed to be reserved for “routine” items. The term is not defined, but a contract carrying a $5.43 million price tag hardly strikes us as run‑of‑the‑mill.
More importantly, the rules of order limit the time allowed for both public comment on, and Council discussion of, consent items. A citizen may speak only once on the entire consent calendar, for a maximum of two minutes. In addition, unless a Council member “pulls” an item, the consent calendar may be approved “by one motion without discussion.” And even if a Council member pulls an item, discussion on that item is limited to five minutes per member.
One might very well argue that any item with financial consequences of this magnitude should get more attention than these rules permit. But an item that has the effect of increasing the police department budget by $5.43 million in an era characterized by calls for diminishing the role of the police would seem to cry out for a full debate.
We well recall that, after the Mali Watkins incident in May 2020, public commenters began showing up (by Zoom) at Council meetings to demand that the City “defund” the Alameda police department. And the Council members who cater to the “progressive” vote rushed to join the chorus.
For example, at the Council meeting on July 14, 2020, Mr. Knox White and Councilman Jim Oddie presented a resolution calling upon Council to “commit to identifying up to 42% of the City Police Department budget to reallocate towards programs that support public health, wellness and resilience and can respond to emergency calls for which the Police are not necessary as identified by Alameda’s Chief of Police,” and to “reviewing the budget again based on the recommendations of the community‑led steering committee and based on [an] outside audit. . . .”
At that meeting, Councilwoman Malia Vella likewise endorsed a reduction in the police department budget – sort of. She wanted to “empower” the police-reform subcommittees to recommend how to “shift funds” away from the police department to “some of these other things,” she said. “Frankly,” she went on, “it could be more than 42 percent. I don’t want to limit it, it could be less, it could come from that department [i.e., the police], it could come from a different department. I think it could be a combination of a number of things. I don’t want to limit it in the sense of, like, here’s a hard and fast number and it has to be less than that, because I also think when we’re talking about long term goals, it could be something that is completely different from what we we’ve thought about.”
(As it turned out, the police-reform steering committee did not propose cutting the police department budget. Instead, it recommended that the City “continue to hire APD officers to the number authorized in the budget” [i.e., 88] – and, presumably, pay them a competitive salary – as well as create and fill a new position for a “crime analyst.”)
We don’t know whether the clamor to “defund the police” has faded away in Alameda. But it is noteworthy that, at last Tuesday’s meeting, there were no public comments objecting to the police‑department budget increase resulting from the new MOU. Moreover, after Ms. Spencer pulled the item from the consent calendar, neither Mr. Knox White nor Ms. Vella had anything whatsoever to say on the subject. (Mr. Oddie, of course, lost his bid for reelection in 2020.) In fact, both voted to approve the new contract, and the motion passed unanimously.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the affirmative votes by Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella are easy to comprehend: If the City isn’t going to reduce the authorized police staffing level so that it can deploy the funds budgeted for APD elsewhere, what’s the point in paying the officers who remain on the job a below-market salary?
Still, from a political standpoint, we will be interested to see if any of the “activists” who urged slashing the police department budget hold those votes against the two Council members when they run for reelection – or higher office. To some, handing the cops a $5.43 million raise might seem a strange way to accomplish “transformative change” in APD.
Staff report: 2022-02-15 staff report re MOU