Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 28, 2007

No such thing as verboten public policy topics

If you want to get my dander up, one surefire method is to suggest that a public policy issue shouldn’t even be discussed.

A verboten topic in Morgan Hill seems to be contracting with other agencies for some or all of the city’s police services. In Gilroy, it seems to be the conflict of interest inherent in the city’s pay scheme for top-tier, nonunion city employees.

In Morgan Hill, officials are searching for ways to pay for more police officers, and are seriously considering the idea of increasing taxes to accomplish that goal.

Taxes are a touchy subject. Longtime Morgan Hill residents remember the 1991 recall election that cost three council members their seats. It resulted from a utility tax increase. It’s difficult to get voter approval of tax increases. Recently failed measures include taxes to support the school district, the library and county general fund.

Given those realities, you’d think that officials would at least consider a cost-savings model – contracting for police services – that is used successfully in other Bay Area cities. For example, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office provides police services for Cupertino, Los Altos Hills and Saratoga.

Instead, many officials are trying to dismiss the idea out of hand.

Staff writer Marilyn Dubil reported that Police Chief Bruce Cumming told council members that merely investigating the idea would impact police morale, and that Councilmen Greg Sellers and Larry Carr have rejected the idea before it’s even been studied.

“Can we focus ourselves on things that we might actually do?” Carr asked when the subject came up at a recent council study session.

Why isn’t a study within the realm of possibility? Why can’t we even talk about it?

Luckily, Councilman Mark Grzan understands the issue and isn’t deterred by attempts to brush it under the rug.

In a guest column published earlier this month in the Morgan Hill Times, Grzan wrote, “I have advocated and will continue to advocate that we study contracting for dispatch services. I believe there could be significant savings … enough that we can hire additional public safety officers without raising or at least limiting the amount of new taxes we choose to levy.”

It’s a reasonable option that ought to be on the table.

Grzan is exactly right to highlight the importance of performing cost-benefit analyses before making any public safety decisions, including whether or not to expand the police department or to contract with other agencies for some or all of the city’s police services.

He rightly advocates “looking at alternatives, and applying quantitative and qualitative measures in the final decision making process.”

Maybe we’ll research contracting for police services and find it doesn’t pass muster under a cost-benefit analysis. Or maybe we’ll determine that it will work well here, as it has in numerous other communities. But we won’t know if we don’t at least study the issue.

In Gilroy, City Administrator Jay Baksa bristled at reasonable questions from Councilman Craig Gartman about conflicts of interest inherent in a new scheme that links the pay of top-tier, nonunion city employees to the raises they negotiate – as taxpayer/city representatives – for union employees.

“The issue of it being a conflict of interest is offensive, because the management employees that sit in on these talks are of the highest integrity and professionalism,” Baksa said.

Mayor Al Pinheiro echoed Baksa, saying, “You need to trust the people that you’ve got working under you, that they’re there to do a job and that includes looking out for the city… Let’s not start off with distrust.”

Why is it offensive to question such a blatant conflict of interest? Why shouldn’t Gilroyans expect to start off with a conflict-free pay scheme?

Refreshingly, City Council candidate Perry Woodward understands the issue and isn’t deterred by clumsy attempts to brush it under the rug.

In a recent letter to the editor he wrote, “No matter how ethical these department heads may be, linking their pay to that of subordinates … compromises their judgment during these negotiations.”

Gartman and Woodward are exactly right to question that conflict of interest.

Whether it’s investigating reasonable alternatives for delivering police services or asking important questions about conflicts of interest in a city pay scheme, no one should tell us that we can’t even talk about it.

When topics are branded “off limits” and officials try to silence discussion, the next reasonable question is “Why?” As responsible citizens, we must insist on reasonable answers. We must understand these issues and not be deterred by attempts to brush them under the rug.

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