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By Henrietta J. Burroughs                Follow East Palo Alto Today on
East Palo Alto Today                                       Facebook    Twitter         Blog    
January 31, 2014                           
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Even before the agenda for the February 4 East Palo Alto City Council meeting was distributed to city council members and made available to the public, one item on the agenda -- the possible outsourcing of the city’s police services-- has already captured public attention.

During its upcoming Tuesday meeting, the East Palo Alto City Council will consider a city staff recommendation to contract out the services provided by the East Palo Alto Police Department.

This option is ostensibly being presented to the council because the city is facing a one million dollar deficit and the services connected to the police department amount to almost 45% of the city’s budget.

For the city’s Mayor, Laura Martinez, the issue of outsourcing is “pretty simple.” Martinez said, ‘We’re in the stage of gathering information. We respect our police officers and the job they are doing in the community. As elected officials, this is what our charge is.

“We haven’t received any information yet,” she said. “Right now, with the timing of the appointment of the interim police chief, this is a good time to examine the issue. We’re looking at providing direction to the staff,” Martinez said.

The city’s Vice Mayor, Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier, cited the city’s budget deficit and she seems to agree with Martinez. “This is a conversation that has to happen," Yarbrough-Gauthier said. “It has to be brought to the forefront.”

According to Yarbrough-Gauthier, a discussion about the cost of police services in the city will allow the council to make cost comparisons of various policing options.

“We’re exploring numbers,” she said.  What services will the [San Mateo County] sheriff bring? What services would the other police departments bring?” Yarbrough-Gauthier acknowledged that having a city police department brings the city more than just public safety.  She cited such factors as community trust and a personal rapport that can develop when community residents positively interact with individual members of their city’s police department.  

For Barbara Powell, East Palo Alto’s assistant city manager, the decision to keep the city’s police department or to outsource its policing services is the council’s to make.

When asked about the outsourcing item on the council agenda, Powell gave a written response: “If Council asks staff to collect information, we will do so and we will then bring the information back to the Council at a subsequent meeting, at which time they will decide if they want to continue to explore options for the provision of Public Safety Services."

Since the outsourcing item on the February 4 agenda was leaked to the media, nearly a week before it was scheduled to be discussed by the council, both the issue and the manner in which it was made public have come under criticism.

In responding to an email from East Palo Alto Today, Council member Ruben Abrica said, “The city council has never given authorization to top management to look into this [issue], nor have they come and asked the council for direction, except now that it has become public and they need to clean up the mess.”

In his reply Abrica wrote, “Tuesday will be the FIRST discussion at our level and open to the public. That was my main concern….if that is in the air then let's clear the air with a public policy discussion.”

The idea of outsourcing the city’s police department comes on the heels of two issues that have already placed the East Palo Alto Police Department in the spotlight.

The first issue arose last November, when it was revealed that four African American police officers in the East Palo Alto Police Department filed a complaint with the city charging that they were discriminated against by Ron Davis, the city’s former police chief who left the city on November 8, 2013 to head the U.S Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in Washington, D.C.

When asked about the status of the city’s investigation into the complaint, Magda González, East Palo Alto’s city manager, said that she really couldn’t comment, because it was a personnel issue. So, González acknowledged that the final outcome of the investigation will not go into the public record and would not be revealed at all, except to city officials and the parties involved.

The second issue regarding the police department surfaced with the hiring of the city’s new Interim Police Chief, Lee Violett.

At the council meeting on January 24, Abrica commented on “the sudden departure” of East Palo Alto’s Interim Chief Federico Rocha, who left the city on January 17, 2014, and the sudden appointment of Violett, who started in his new position on January 21.

During his remarks, Abrica requested “for the sake of transparency and clarity of communication with our community,” that González give a verbal and a written response to the following questions that he posed:

  1. What was the process, procedure, and specific timeline used to release Mr. Rocha and hire Mr. Violett?
  2. Were those decisions made just last week?
  3. Why was the city council not consulted to request a possible extension or other options from the California Public Employees Retirement System, if options were considered by management?
  4. I sometimes hear rumors that management is considering/discussing the contracting out of police services with the Sheriff’s department….what is the situation in regards to this?

Abrica served on the city council after the city’s incorporation in 1983 and he has been a strong advocate for the council and the community having input into the selection of the city’s next police chief.

Currently, it is the city manager, who has the power to hire the city’s police chief and the rest of the city staff.  It is the city council that has the authority to hire the city manager and the city attorney.

In a earlier news story in East Palo Alto Today, González said that city officials expect to have a process in place by the end of February for the appointment of the city's permanent police chief. If the council votes to outsource the city’s public safety services, then the hiring of a new city police chief will become a moot issue.

Certainly given the current issues involving the East Palo Alto Police Department, the city council will have a lot to consider. The city staff will have a lot of work to do, if the council decides that it wants the staff to bring it more information to support the idea of outsourcing public safety services.

Will the council drop the work that needs to be done to put the process in place for the hiring of a new city police chief to pursue outsourcing options?

Thus far, the agenda item regarding the East Palo Alto Police Department has garnered much attention inside and outside of the city, even before the council has had a chance to publicly discuss it. So, the council’s discussion of the issue as well as the direction it gives to the city staff might well overshadow everything else on the council's agenda for the evening.

 

Reach the author of this article, Henrietta J. Burroughs, at epatoday@epatoday.org. 

 

East Palo Alto Today Articles:

New Interim police chief appointed in the December 20, 2013 - January 2014 issue of East Palo Alto Today on the cover page.

Abrica calls for more community input in the November 17, 2013 - December 19, 2013 issue of East Palo Alto Today on the cover page.

A former East Palo Alto police officer comes to Ron Davis' defense

Four East Palo Alto police officers file a complaint charging racial discrimination