SIERRA MADRE — Two years ago, Family Circle magazine placed this quiet foothills city on a list of "12 Great Safe Places to Live." In their search for "safe-and-snug" suburbs that might appeal to families seeking a safe place to raise their children, the authors used FBI statistics and personal visits to rank Sierra Madre along with with such towns as Winthrop, Mass., and Whitefish Bay, Wis., where "there's lots of good living and very little crime," the article said.
Now, the 17 members of the police force are hoping to cash in on that distinction, saying that their efforts have contributed substantially to the city's reputation as a nice, safe place to live. A big pay raise--one that would bring Sierra Madre officers' salaries in line with those of the men in blue in surrounding cities--is in order, officers contend.
After four months of separate negotiations, the City Council denied that request in December, saying that the 6% raise that the 30 or so other municipal employees would receive starting in January was all the the city could afford. The police, who had asked for at least 10%, refused to accept that offer. An impasse was declared, and the council acted unilaterally to impose the 6% raise.
At the center of the pay dispute, which has become an issue in the April 8 municipal election, is the disparity between the salaries of Sierra Madre police officers and those in neighboring cities.
Officer Stephen Abernethy, president of the Sierra Madre Police Assn., points to a September, 1985, salary survey by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that put Sierra Madre officers at the bottom of a list of 47 police agencies in the county.
According to the survey, the average Sierra Madre police officer with 14 years of experience gets base pay of $2,150 per month. An officer with the same amount of experience on the highest-paid police force in the survey--the Santa Monica Police Department-- receives $3,411. Abernethy says officers in his department are seeking a hike that would bring them to the mid-range of pay--about $2,670 a month.
Although the council considers the subject closed for now, the police officers have not given up. They hope that their efforts to oust two incumbents will improve their position in future pay negotiations with the City Council.
"This obviously has turned into a political issue this year," said Abernethy. "I thought perhaps this year, with the public input, they might be interested (in responding to demands). They haven't been."
There are three council seats at stake in the election. Mayor Charles I. Corp plans to step down when his term expires, vacating one council seat. And council members Thomas G. Edwards, who is seeking a fourth four-year term, and Lisa Fowler, who is ending her first term, are both seeking reelection.
Running against them are two former council members, Clem Bartolai and Elaine Rudolph, as well as newcomers Bruce Crow and Frank VanDongen.
The police association has not endorsed any candidates, but Abernethy said his group would prefer any of the challengers over the incumbents.
"None of the (present) council members will open their minds to any stated facts such as salary surveys or cost of living indexes," Abernethy said.
Edwards contends that the police are being unfair in blaming them for the council's action.
'It Takes Three'
"You have to realize that it takes a majority of the council to do anything," Edwards said. "There are only two of us, and it takes three to do anything."
However, both Edwards and Fowler support the council's decision to stick with the 6% raise and are disappointed that the pay dispute has become an election issue.
Fowler said the council had explored ways to come up with more money for the police, but that the city faces budget problems and 6% was the best it could offer.
"I'm sorry to see them at the bottom of the scale, and at some point, I'd like to see them at parity with surrounding cities," Fowler said. "On the other hand, 6% was the best we could do under the circumstances."
None of the challengers has made any commitment to future pay hikes for the officers. They say they need more budget information and input from the community before they can decide.
"I will take whatever facts are available on April 8 and I'll make a decision," said Rudolph, president of a financial consultant placement company. "I will make no promises."
Defeated in 1982
Rudolph, who was defeated in the 1982 election after serving on the council from 1978 to 1982, said she does not think the election forum is an appropriate place to debate the police pay issue.
VanDongen, 47, owner of a fish market and a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he would like to see the current council resolve the police pay issue before the election. But if he is elected and the issue is still unresolved, he said he would set a meeting between the police and the council to try to reach an agreement.