Gilroy cops take on mayor
Conservative activist, police union launch recall effort over cuts
By Devin Banerjee
San Jose Mercury News
Aug. 3, 2009 -- The economic crisis sweeping California and the rest of the world may be about to claim another casualty: Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro.
Saying the mayor's effort to trim police spending is endangering public safety, a frustrated police union wants to recall Pinheiro -- the longtime civic leader who entered office five years ago intent on revitalizing the city's dilapidated downtown.
Pinheiro, now in his second term, is at the center of a political battle led by conservative activist Mark Zappa and a majority of the 56-member Police Officers Association. They're angry over the City Council's 5-2 vote last month to slash $1.1 million from the police department -- part of a series of moves to close Gilroy's $4.7 million deficit.
Police association President Mitch Madruga and Zappa accuse the council of failing to make public safety a priority, pointing to increases in vandalism, burglaries, thefts and violent crimes.
"The mayor doesn't seem to think that's important," said Zappa, who's working to garner the approximately 3,700 signatures required to force a recall vote. Madruga has already distributed 10,000 fliers with headlines from the local paper recounting recent crimes.
But Pinheiro -- who has lived in Gilroy since he was 12 -- is pushing back. He says the city's need to cut 20 percent of its budget is a burden that falls on everyone's shoulders, including those of the police.
"I, as mayor, value very much the work of police and fire, but we're all in this together, and we need to make sacrifices," said Pinheiro, 57, who emphasized council members' recent decision to trim their own salaries by 10 percent. "We're facing a budget crisis, we're facing a world economic crisis, and Gilroy is not immune to it."
Indeed, it's far from the only city wrestling to rein in public safety costs amid the downturn. Vallejo declared bankruptcy last year after employee costs, mostly for police and firefighters, helped create a ballooning deficit. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has been harshly criticized by the head of his cash-strapped city's police union for trying to hold down salaries and benefits.
Madruga counters that the financial crunch in Gilroy's police department -- which has recently resulted in the freezing of more than a dozen positions and the loss of four officers who retired or left for different departments -- has heightened anxiety among officers and hindered their ability to keep the city safe.
"To operate with that job insecurity is rough, especially in this business," Madruga said.
According to FBI records, Gilroy has about 1.1 police officers per 1,000 residents, compared with the national average of 1.5.
Both sides admitted that beneath the budget stalemate some bad blood already exists.
Since his term began, Pinheiro has been a staunch opponent of binding arbitration to resolve union contract disputes, claiming it gives a third party control of the city's finances. But firefighters and police see the process as their only bargaining chip because state law prohibits them from going on strike. The city's firefighters have successfully invoked arbitration twice since voters approved it in 1988, while police have never invoked it.
The council will vote Sept. 14 whether to put binding arbitration back on a future ballot, the mayor said.
Zappa, an outspoken conservative who owns a local printing company, has also criticized the council for buying Bonfante Gardens -- the horticultural theme park now called Gilroy Gardens -- last year for $13.2 million.
"It's a pretty place, but I don't think cities should be investing in amusement parks," Zappa said. "It's been losing money since day one."
Pinheiro said the money used to purchase the gardens came from restricted funds that can't pay salaries, and he added that the council has no plans to sell the park. "We're not in the business of selling our assets for short-term gain and then still having to face the fundamental issue of revenue versus expenditures."
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that City Council members themselves are divided over the recall campaign.
"You always have to look to the mayor for leadership in trying to correct these things, and that (leadership) isn't there right now," said Councilman Craig Gartman, who lost to Pinheiro in the 2007 mayoral race. Gartman and Perry Woodward were the two council members who dissented on last month's police funding vote.
First-term Councilwoman Cat Tucker called the recall campaign a "crazy" fear tactic. "I believe it's just retaliation from the Gilroy POA to try to get back at the council," she said.
Election Price Tag
The recall vote -- assuming it gets on the ballot -- may be costly for the city, depending on Zappa's timing. If it falls within next year's June primary election period, it will cost Gilroy $75,000, according to City Clerk Shawna Freels. Holding the recall during the November 2010 general election would cost the city $45,000.
But if it were a special election, Freels said, the cost could soar to between $400,000 and $420,000 -- enough to hire more than five police officers.
Zappa said he aims to piggyback the recall on one of next year's elections -- specifically, whichever one in which the proposal to revoke binding arbitration is on the ballot.
"The people that are going to come out to fight binding arbitration are also the people that are going to vote to recall the mayor," he said.
For now, Pinheiro believes he still enjoys the support of the 54 percent of voters who two years ago decided to keep him in office, and he said the recall campaign won't keep him from continuing his work as mayor.
"We can disagree but walk out of here knowing that we were trying to do the right thing based on our beliefs," he said, "and that's what I intend to do."
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