Knives out Salinas councilmember’s commentary is misguided and insulting. And it distracts from real issues going on in the city.


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

A lot of interesting stuff happened during the Jan. 23 Salinas City Council meeting.

Councilmembers honored Christopher Knapp as the Salinas Fire Department 2023 Firefighter of the Year, the Fire Department itself for its 150th anniversary, and the Palma High football team for conquering the state title — the first statewide champions in Monterey County’s history. A lot of cheer and goodwill went around during the first portion of the meeting.

Also, the council received the permit center’s annual report from its recently appointed director Lisa Brinton. Her report about the changes that have been made since she arrived in May is significant given how much heat the department has been under for years. 

Then came meatier issues. For the purposes of this writing, I’ll focus on two items: one that received a lot of media attention, and one that barely got a blip.

I’ll start with the one that was covered extensively. That of the council awarding itself a whopping 400 percent salary increase. Clutch your pearls and breath deeply.

Salinas councilmembers have been earning $7,200 a year since the mid-’80s, when gas was about $1.20 per gallon. But thanks to Senate Bill 329, which allows cities to adjust council members’ compensation to inflation, the council was able to vote itself a nice increase.

Mayor Kimbley Craig spoke emphatically for the raise, even arguing that the mayor’s position should earn more since it requires a lot of time to represent the city in commissions and other matters. She spends a lot of time on social media responding to constituents’ concerns, she said. Councilman Andrew Sandoval argued that the city of Salinas needs to have a full-time, paid mayor. Many would agree, including yours truly. A paid position would attract a wider pool of candidates, qualified people who would not need to have another full time job in order to represent the city and its interests.

The vote was 6-1, with Councilman Steve McShane voting against the increase (we will assume he will decline to receive the pay. We’ll have to keep an eye on that). Their new compensation, which will go into effect 30 days after the vote, will cost the city $214,200 — or 0.14 percent of the city’s operating budget of $147 million and change.

Another item that was voted on was the contract with the Salinas Police Officers Association.

The two-year contract gives Salinas Police a 4% salary increase starting in February, plus a 2% increase in January 2025. It also increases the entry level salary and adds two steps at the top, which will benefit those officers who have been with the department the longest. The contract will cost the city over the two years about $2,379,000 — or 1.4 percent of the city’s operating budget.

See what I did there? A lot more money to be spent and not a lot of coverage, certainly not as much as pay increase for councilmembers. But that’s the state of our local news media these days. I blame the hedge fund overlords for that. 

However, the main reason for this writing has little to do with the money being spent, or whether the council or the police officers got a raise. I decided to write this because of a comment made by Councilman Steve McShane.

A bit of history here: There’s been quite a bit of tension in the council about whether there’s support for the city’s police officers. I have not been following the local conversation closely, but given the national discourse, I assume the divide breaks along “ethnic” lines. Latinos in the council may seem more tepid toward police officers (because their constituents want to shift funding from law enforcement to other service areas) and the non-Latinos (i.e., whites) pledge their support to the police in every circumstance. And I say “may seem more tepid” because, ultimately, there is support for the men and women in uniform. Proof of that is the pay raise they just received, by unanimous vote.

But that’s not what McShane said.

During comments from council members, McShane expressed his views about how he doesn’t see support for police officers by other members of the council, how the police force is at the lowest staffing levels he’s ever seen, and how “the bad guys are paying attention.” How law enforcement’s ability to respond to a collision or petty theft was a few hours behind and to “get used to it” because when a recession hits, it will get worse. If you want to hear his comments, they start at about the 2-hour, 55-minute mark of the meeting’s recording

“We are a dangerous city by some measures, depending on where you live. And granted, one ZIP code may be settled with a knife and one ZIP code may be settled with some strong talk, I don’t know,” he said.

This bit of McShane talking about the “knife” and “strong talk” has been repeated on social media over and over and over, and it’s actually pretty insulting — even if unclear. He does not say the word “conflict,” but what else did he mean when he said “may be settled”? What did you mean, councilman? Which ZIP code exactly were you describing that “may be settled with a knife”? Which ZIP code may be settled with strong talk?

Depending on where you live. Do you mean that in areas where poor, Latino people live, people settle disputes with knives? And where more affluent whites live, disagreements are settled by strong talk? Is that what you meant? Of course, that’s not what you said, but smart, educated Latinos have heard about “dog whistle” politics before. Dog whistle is used to invoke fears about minorities to push agendas. When politicians imply that Latinos in “dangerous parts of the city” settle their arguments with knives, what they are actually implying is that increased police presence is warranted there. Is that what you were doing, councilman?

It is really unfortunate that the media landscape is such that the few full-time reporters we have only have enough bandwidth to focus on the most sensational stories, ones that perhaps don’t have as much impact in the larger community as others — but that’s been my beef even when I was a full-time journalist.

It is also unfortunate that Salinas continues to suffer from an image problem that prevents it from attracting the kind of investment that would bring in more revenue and, in turn, allow for higher salaries to attract more talent to work for our local government, including the permit center and the police department. 

But the most unfortunate thing is that Salinas suffers from some leadership that’s hell bent on demonizing its Latino constituents. We are a hardworking community invested in the present and future of our children. The “most dangerous” parts of the city you speak of are full of culture, of children who dance folklórico and write poetry and play music to make their parents proud. The men and women who live in the “most dangerous” parts of the city are farmworkers who get up before the sun rises and go to bed after the sun sets just so you can have food on your table. To describe them as people who settle scores “with knives” is misguided, disrespectful and highly insulting. 

It also flies in the face of people who are working hard to change that image, people who strive to focus on what’s positive about the community: the hardworking people I described above, their beautiful and talented children. But alas, people of lesser means only get attention when we have a shooting or a fire or another major law-enforcement need. 

And somehow, I don’t expect you to understand the damage that your comments cause. Because that’s how Dog Whistle politics works.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.