Commerce officials, who have threatened to drop a law enforcement contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, have expressed interest in signing a new pact with the 106-member Montebello Police Department.
The Commerce City Council has been at odds for the past two months with the Sheriff's Department because it conducted an unannounced raid on the Commerce Club over New Year's weekend.
Although wary that they may be caught in the middle of a contract dispute, most Montebello city officials say they are willing to consider the Commerce proposal.
Not a Bargaining Chip
"As a matter of courtesy, we are looking into the idea," Councilman Edward C. Pizzorno said this week, after the Montebello council directed police officials to study the Commerce proposal. "But we don't want to be a bargaining chip if Commerce has a beef with the Sheriff's Department."
"It's an interesting proposition, but nobody's rubbing their hands with glee," Pizzorno added.
A week after sheriff's deputies raided the Commerce Club and six other Southland casinos, the Commerce council voted to begin looking at alternatives to its contract with the Sheriff's Department. In addition to contacting neighboring Montebello last month, the Commerce council also has considered starting its own police department to patrol the seven-square-mile city of 11,400.
The raids were conducted as part of an effort by Sheriff Sherman Block to shut down three controversial Asian betting games played at Southland clubs in Commerce, Huntington Park, Bell, Bell Gardens and Gardena. City administrators have complained that their cities would suffer high financial loses if the games are stopped.
But most Montebello city officials say they will approach the Commerce inquiry with caution.
Mayor Cool to Idea
"I am less than lukewarm," Montebello Mayor William M. Nighswonger said. "That would about describe my feelings. But there's no harm in looking into it."
Councilwoman Kathy Salazar was the only one of four council members interviewed who favored the idea strongly. "It really is a win-win situation," Salazar said. "This will be beneficial to both communities. It's a good step for us."
Councilman Arthur M. Glasman was unavailable for comment.
After a preliminary study, Montebello Police Chief Steven Simonian concluded that the force would have to be expanded by about 33% before he could sign a contract with Commerce. He estimated that his department would need to charge Commerce about $3.5 million, about $300,000 more than Commerce now pays to the Sheriff's Department.
"It is in the realm of possibility," said Simonian, even though he also expressed skepticism. "It would be a positive move for the city if there is a profit involved. But if there is no profit, then I don't see why the city would want to share its Police Department."
Commerce officials declined to comment whether the price increase would be acceptable.
Simonian said it is not unusual for a local police department to cover more than one city. For instance, he cited the Bell-Cudahy Police Department, which covers both cities, and the Brea Police Department in Orange County, which also covers Yorba Linda.
Commerce officials, while citing the Commerce Club raid as the main reason for seeking a new contract, have also cited continual dissatisfaction with the Sheriff's Department over what they consider to be a lack of communication and an unsatisfactory level of service. Commerce is in the first year of a five-year contract and would have to give as much as a year's notice if it intends to terminate that agreement.
'Doesn't Meet Standards'
"There is a feeling (among Commerce officials) that service that's provided simply doesn't meet the standards that the council has established," City Administrator Louis Shepard said in a telephone interview.
Shepard said city officials are determined to look into alternatives despite a meeting with top sheriff's officials in January to iron out differences that arose after the raid.
But Capt. Lynn Poos, whose East Los Angeles station provides 32 deputies to Commerce, said the raid is the only source of the city's disenchantment. Poos said the raid was conducted without his knowledge by deputies from downtown Los Angeles.
"That's the sum and substance of it," said Poos, who defended the station's response record and efforts to communicate daily with city officials. He described the failure by the Sheriff's Department to notify Commerce officials of the raid as a "very unfortunate situation."