Almanac

News - April 24, 2013

Atherton: Police union letter raises residents' ire

by Renee Batti

Some residents are calling it a scare tactic and a "shameful" attempt to misrepresent reality. But the head of the police union insisted that the letter his group mailed to Atherton residents earlier this month was "intended to help foster communication between the less engaged residents and their elected representatives."

In the one-and-a-half-page letter, the Atherton Police Officers' Association addressed what it called "a staffing crisis" in the police department, the parcel tax's role in funding the department, and upcoming labor negotiations for a new contract for police officers and dispatchers.

The letter was signed by police dispatcher and APOA President John Mattes.

The City Council will be focusing on the parcel tax and the police contract in coming weeks, and its decisions, the letter says, "may change the way the town provides your safety and security services. Ultimately, the council's choices may lead to the outsourcing of the Atherton Police Department to another local agency."

The APOA "is trying to strike fear in our hearts," resident John Ruggeiro charged during the public comment period at the April 17 council meeting. A former San Francisco police captain whose son is now on the San Francisco force, Mr. Ruggeiro compared police-to-resident staffing ratios in both cities, and contested the letter's claim that Atherton's police staffing is inadequate.

"The letter is not 'fear mongering' or scare tactics," Mr. Mattes wrote in an email to the Almanac. Instead, it's part of a campaign to publicize issues the APOA believes need to be understood by residents.

"The problem we face is the residents only become involved in a crisis," he wrote. "They are largely detached from local politics and many of the intricate local issues. We don't have a good way of connecting with our supporters other than through direct mail. The APOA members are committed to keeping residents engaged in the issues that impact them, including how the town will provide safety services."

That's not how longtime resident Lou Paponis sees it. He also addressed the council last week, saying that he resents being sent a "threatening" letter "from a dispatcher."

Referring to a letter sent by the APOA before the council election last fall — endorsing council candidates Cary Wiest and incumbent Elizabeth Lewis and warning of the possible outsourcing of police services if the public didn't make the right choices — Mr. Paponis said the APOA tactics are leading him to favor outsourcing.

If police officers aren't satisfied with the "sweetheart job" in Atherton, they can "move on," he said.

Another unhappy letter recipient is resident Peter Carpenter, who is pushing the council to schedule a public hearing before negotiations with the APOA begin so that residents could comment on objectives they want to see met in the contract. The APOA letter "is a shameful misrepresentation of the facts and an unwise attempt to scare the residents," he said in an email.

Following Mr. Paponis' remarks to the council, Councilman Jim Dobbie said: "I am disgusted with the APOA as well. Those letters are totally inappropriate in this community."

In his email, Mr. Mattes countered: "It is entirely appropriate for our organization to participate in the public discourse. He may not like what we have to say; that's OK. But, he's a public official. I find it astonishing that he criticize(s) our constitutionally protected speech from the dais. That's inappropriate for this or any other community."

Mayor Lewis noted that the APOA is independent, and neither the council nor the police chief has authority over what it does. The APOA enclosed a card addressed to the mayor with the letter, and encouraged residents "to send your opinion to Mayor Lewis and the rest of your Town Council" to let them know "you support us." Ms. Lewis said that the union didn't contact her before the mailing to inform her that the cards would be sent out.

The town several weeks ago asked the union to begin the bargaining process for a new contract. The current contract expires Sept. 30.

In its letter, the APOA said that the council "has tipped its hand on several occasions in public forums that they will mandate a series of reductions in salaries, pensions, and medical benefits." It warned that if the cuts are similar to those imposed on non-represented employees earlier this year, "many officers, sergeants and dispatchers will find they are unable to provide for their families. As much as they enjoy working in this town, they may have no choice but to seek other employment opportunities."

Under the current contract, police officers are paid at the 70th percentile of police salaries in specified Bay Area jurisdictions.

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