LONG BEACH — Councilwoman Eunice Sato has accused the police union of "trying to buy me off" by threatening to defeat her in the spring election if she refused to support a union wage proposal to be presented during contract negotiations that begin today.
Reacting to the Long Beach Police Officers Assn.'s recent endorsement of her District 7 opponent Ray Grabinski, Sato said this week: "They were using a screw on me because I'm up for reelection. They were trying to buy me off, and I refused."
She said union President Douglas Drummond told her in a meeting Feb. 20, the day before the union endorsed Grabinski and four other council candidates, that "he wanted a promise up front that I would give the policemen $2,000 a year or more, just like that."
Sato said she told Drummond that such a pledge might be illegal and certainly would be improper. "How can management negotiate anything if the City Council gives the unions anything they want beforehand?" she said in an interview.
Drummond said Tuesday that he did ask Sato for "a promise to support in concept" a union pay proposal that it plans to take to the bargaining table. The proposal would boost an officer's pay an average of $2,854 a year over a career by creating a new rank between patrolman and sergeant and increasing salaries for all ranks higher than the new rank. That would give the police parity with Long Beach firefighters, who already have the extra rank and pay advantages, he said. The average pay for a Long Beach patrolman is $30,403 a year, Drummond said.
Support 'in Concept'
Candidates endorsed in all four contested council races pledged support for the wage proposal "in concept," Drummond said. The union has backed Joy Melton in District 1, where no incumbent is running; Councilwoman Jan Hall in District 3; Councilman Warren Harwood in District 9, and Grabinski.
Melton, Hall and Harwood confirmed that they had endorsed the concept of wage parity with firefighters for police officers. Grabinski said he did not commit himself to the union proposal, even in concept, but thinks it is reasonable.
Spokesmen for the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the secretary of state's office, the agencies that interpret the Political Reform Act and elections code, said they could find no statute to support Sato's impression that her endorsement of a wage package in exchange for police union backing might be illegal.
City Attorney John Calhoun also said he was unaware of a law that specifically addresses the issue. But Calhoun said a section of the state government code prohibits elected officials and candidates from using their office or influence to help "any individual person" get a government job or better pay in exchange for that person's political support.
"I'm not saying this (section) applies here," Calhoun said, "but it may have been what (Sato) had in mind. I'm not sure any enforcement agency would say that it would apply for a platform of an organization. That's going pretty far."
Drummond said there was "absolutely nothing improper" about seeking pledges of support for police wage parity from candidates. Unions and other special-interest groups nationwide are constantly lobbying elected officials for similar commitments, he said.
"It is certainly appropriate in the political world to discuss our salary picture with candidates," he said. "We were not asking (Sato) to negotiate with us. We were doing our foundation work prior to negotiations.
"We have had a seven-year war with the city manager and two different chiefs of police. . . ," he added. "And that kind of relationship has damaged our department in that our pay doesn't reflect the surrounding area, and in the low morale of the rank and file. This was a quiet effort to regain some salary and also to gain some good will."
Drummond denied Sato's assertion that he had threatened her with a barrage of police officers walking District 7, urging her defeat. He said, however, that about 30 officers might be working council districts, including Sato's, some weekends before the April 8 election. That ability to turn out campaign workers, and accompanying financial contributions, have made the endorsement of the 624-member police union a top political prize in municipal elections.
Sato, a three-term councilwoman, has never received police union support, but has won handily.
Seen as Hard-Working
Grabinski has had strong support within the union because the Bixby Knolls delicatessen owner had shown himself to be an aggressive, hard-working community leader and supporter of the police, Drummond said.
Also, union leaders think Sato is not an effective council member, Drummond said. "We would agree with Eunice on most everything she proposes, but her lack of cooperation with other council members means that very often she cannot obtain results."