Atherton police association tactics under fire in election
A number of residents and City Council members are criticizing a pre-election mail and telephone campaign by the Atherton Police Officers Association that they say is spreading false and misleading information to residents.
An APOA flier that reached mailboxes in late summer, warning residents that "you are in danger of losing your Atherton police," prompted Mayor Bill Widmer and Councilman Jim Dobbie to dispute, in a public letter to council colleagues, several key points of the "scaremongering" mailer. The council voted unanimously last month to place discussion of the mailer on the Oct. 17 council agenda.
The APOA, the employee group of the town's police officers and sergeants, also announced in a recorded message left recently on residents' telephones that it has endorsed incumbent Elizabeth Lewis and Cary Wiest for the two open council seats.
The wording of the message, recorded by APOA president and police officer David Metzger, has caused some residents to cry foul, saying that the association implied that the two other candidates — Greg Conlon and Denise Kupperman — would support outsourcing police services.
"They don't directly say that we would outsource, but the (implication) is pretty strong," Mr. Conlon said.
The prepared statement delivered by Mr. Metzger said that Atherton police officers "are working hard to maintain the level of service you currently receive, as well as the safety and security of the town of Atherton.
"However, your police department could eventually be outsourced to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department, depending on the current and future actions of your City Council. With this in mind, (the association is) supporting ... Elizabeth Lewis for re-election and ... Cary Wiest for election."
Although a few residents have publicly advocated outsourcing police services, the idea has proven to be a hot potato, and it appears that a large majority of residents oppose it. Which posed a problem for candidate Kupperman.
"It was of concern" for several residents at an event held late last month in support of her candidacy, Ms. Kupperman said. She had to explain to those raising questions that she has never advocated outsourcing police services, she added.
When she heard of the phone message, she said, she went to the police station to speak with Mr. Metzger and tell him that his call "includes a misstatement of my position." He responded that "there was no implied message," she said. But the message, she insisted, "was suggestive — not explicit but implicit."
"That's how I interpret it and how a number of residents interpreted it."
Ms. Kupperman said she wasn't seeking the APOA endorsement, and that the association had a right to endorse whomever it chose to. "But they don't have a right to misrepresent my position," she said.
Mr. Metzger was not available for comment.
Although the APOA traditionally endorses candidates in council races, the double-punch approach this campaign season has made some residents nervous. Mayor Bill Widmer said he has heard from "a number of residents who have said they're afraid to put out signs (for candidates Kupperman or Conlon) for fear there could be retribution."
Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen, whose term ends in December, said in a statement sent to the Almanac that within minutes of receiving the APOA's "robocall" herself, she received calls from several residents worried that if they endorsed candidates other than the APOA's choices, they might "receive differential treatment from the police," or might be "targeted." She said the call constituted "intimidation."
The association didn't conduct interviews before making endorsements, but sent out a questionnaire to all candidates. Both Ms. Kupperman and Mr. Conlon said their answers in no way suggested that they support outsourcing police services.
"I said I was definitely against it ... unless we're going into bankruptcy," Mr. Conlon said, adding that he made it clear he didn't think bankruptcy is in the town's future.
Incumbent Elizabeth Lewis posted the questionnaire and her responses on her website. "I do not believe Atherton should outsource its police department to the county at this time," she said in response to a question asking if she would "ever consider" such a move.
But she said she prefers to never say never "because life is long and circumstances change."
"If at some future date, the economic conditions of the town are such that there is no other choice but to join forces with other departments to avoid bankruptcy, as an elected official I would have to make that hard fiscal decision considering what would be best for the town's solvency."
Although the APOA flier included no endorsements, its message was dramatic — and to some, alarming.
After stating that the council "has revealed its intention to severely cut police officer pay and benefits forcing most to look for work elsewhere," the mailer claimed that "the council will most likely outsource policing to another agency."
APOA vice president and police dispatcher John Mattes defended the assertion: If the town significantly reduces benefits, "you're going to have people who are looking to leave."
The town won't be able to find qualified candidates if compensation is inferior to that of other agencies, so the town will be forced to outsource services, he said.
The flier criticized the manner in which parcel tax revenues have been spent — not enough police department spending, it implied. It also said that the department received a mere 0.2 percent funding increase, "which does not even cover inflation, much less the funds needed for proper staffing in the ... department."
Mayor Widmer said town staff is fact-checking all claims in the flier to give council members accurate information when they discuss the mailer this month. But in the colleagues letter he and Mr. Dobbie issued, they noted that police salary increases were nearly 3.9 percent for officers and about 1 percent for sergeants.
"We believe the mailer is a scaremongering attempt with misrepresented data by the APOA to attempt to assist in their upcoming contract negotiations (the contract expires next year) and to sway voters to support 'their' candidates," they wrote. "We believe the residents need to know the facts."
Mr. Widmer said in an interview that the flier "talks all about trust. But trust goes both ways. I don't think they should be putting words in people's mouths and leading people to believe that their safety is jeopardized."
Personally, he said, he values "the work that the police department does here. There's no question in my mind about their integrity and trustworthiness, etc. My comments are with regards to these tactics."