Salinas Councilmember Orlando Osornio, top right; Salinas Councilmember Steve McShane, top center; Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig, bottom left; Salinas Councilmember Christie Cromeens, bottom right. | Provided, City of Salinas
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
It feels like a lifetime ago, but it’s only been three months since Salinas elected three and a half brand-new people to the city council. And it’s three and a half because Mayor Kimbley Craig had already been a Salinas councilmember for a number of years, so she isn’t exactly new. Either way, this council is very different from the group that left the stage in December.
The new crop of council members was praised for their youth and their progressive ideas, particularly by the young activists who no doubt propelled them into office. Orlando Osornio, Carla Viviana González and Anthony Rocha said they would put the community first when deciding budget priorities, which many understood to mean they would not be supporting any new spending in the police department.
That’s how we arrived at a vote that took place on March 16. It was an item included on the consent agenda, which means it was supposedly a routine matter, at least in the convoluted ways bureaucrats think of routine. Except nothing is routine in this day and age of heightened scrutiny of police departments everywhere.
The item in question was a new contract with the Salinas Police Officers Association that included, among other things, a 6.75 percent salary increase over three years, a decrease in the contribution the city makes towards the officers’ health plan, and an increase in payments for shift differential, from $10 and $20 per shift to $23.45 per shift. The total cost to the city: $1,723,225.
The vote was 5-2, with Orlando Osornio and Tony Barrera dissenting from the majority. In their comments, which you can hear on the Salinas YouTube Channel (making the job of reporters everywhere a lot easier since 2020), both Barrera and Osornio talk about finances being front and center in their concerns. Finance Director Matt Pressey warned the council last year about the city’s declining revenues and increasing expenditures. “This isn’t politics, this is money,” Barrera said. “Do people deserve a raise? Absolutely, if there’s money.” Osornio’s explanation was similar to Barrera’s. He promised he would run the city like he ran his own business, and he doesn’t spend money he doesn’t have, he said.
But there’s a tiny, itsy-bitsy piece of legislation called the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act that gives government employee unions a great deal of power when it comes to the bargaining table. Enacted in 1968, it gives government employees the right to join a union without fear of retribution. It also requires both parties to bargain in “good faith,” which means government entities can’t have their representatives come to a tentative agreement with their union-represented employees, and then have the elected officials reject it. Well, they can, but there could be stiff consequences to pay in the form of a lawsuit. And who wants that?
It should be noted that the Salinas Police Department had been working without a contract since 2018, and that it asked Salinas representatives to come to the table in November, presumably after watching the results of the elections and after two years of tense negotiations that included an impasse. Also to be noted: the previous contract included an 11 percent increase over three years, a considerably more generous contract than the one approved on March 16. Also, at $11 million, the union’s proposal was far more expensive to the city. Also of note: the new contract now places the POA in the mid range of other unions in the city, not on top, like it’s been in the past. The new contract is shiny, but more mirror-shiny than gold-shiny.
There was a considerable amount of public comment, mostly coming from residents urging the council not to support the increase. The city already spends a very large portion of its budget — 45 percent — on the police department. Public works gets 10 percent, and library and community services 8 percent. Many would like that financial pie to be cut differently. A handful of people sent their support via email, citing safety concerns, and one saying he was “100 percent behind the blue.”
When it came time to vote, Rocha took the bull by the horns. He was the one who asked the item to be pulled, and said the city could not engage in “regressive negotiations. Do I have concerns? Yes. But Anthony Rocha does not win every single agreement. It has to abide by the rules of the Meyers-Brown Act. We have a tentative agreement and we have a legal obligation to bargain in good faith.”
González’s comments echoed Rocha’s. “We have a legal obligation to proceed. To (not) do so would be in violation of the Meyers Act,” she said, adding that her vote did not mean she would turn a blind eye to the “over bloated” police department and urging residents to continue pressuring elected officials.
“Hold us accountable,” she said. “Do not make it easy for us. We’re public servants. We’re here to serve you.”
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