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Police Rough It Amid Affluence

Public safety: It's been a struggle to get Sausalito residents to approve a new headquarters to replace rickety, overcrowded trailers.


SAUSALITO — Plastic pink flamingos guard the Sausalito Police Department, this upscale city's only trailer park. They add a touch of class to the five rickety buildings perched on uncompacted landfill at the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

The trailers shimmy in high winds. Their hollow doors swing shut unaided as the buildings sink and settle into the unstable ground. Mold? Yes. Mice? You bet. An earthquake hazard? Absolutely. But despite five years of fund-raising, planning and public meetings, a new building for Sausalito's finest remains a tantalizing dream.

Earlier this year, Sausalito voters rejected plans for a $7.8-million, 22,500-square-foot headquarters for the city's police and firefighters. Too big and too much, opponents said. Too out of character with the small city's quaint and artsy vibe.

Testimony during a series of tense public hearings included advice by a feng shui expert and earned Sausalito a spate of mocking headlines in newspapers from USA Today to the New Delhi Times. Last month, however, a steering committee of 32 residents met to start planning from scratch. The group hopes to leave the bad feelings in the past.

"The vote against the safety building was very divisive for Sausalito, but we hope that's behind us," said John Ferrell, a leader of the opposition. "The good news is there were enough people who cared about their town to fight City Hall and win, which was the real story here. Of course, that's not as cute and clever as making it about feng shui."

City leaders find the fight neither cute nor clever. Planning for the safety building began soon after a 1995 flood evicted the police force from its home of 93 years. In five years, the city held 31 public meetings, lined up $2.3 million in private donations, sent out thousands of informational fliers, hung banners across the proposed building site and spent $273,000 on studies and architects.

But it wasn't until the city erected "story poles," a skeleton of wood and netting that outlines the shape of a building, that opponents took action. Upset at the size of the building, which extended 242 feet and closed off a residential street, they sued the city. Under a negotiated settlement, city leaders agreed to put the matter of the new safety building to an advisory vote.

Residents turned out in record numbers and voted down the proposed building.

"The residents of Sausalito are nothing if not passionate about the quality of life in their community," City Manager Dana Whitson said. "After the vote, the council dusted themselves off and decided to get on with it, with a community-based planning process."

That process, which city leaders said must be complete by December, includes revisiting all phases of decision-making. Four subcommittees of eight people each are devoted to choosing a building site, funding, architecture and what the facilities should include.

A quick tour of the existing police and fire facilities should make planning easier.

Firefighters go to sleep each night in a brick building that could come down around their heads. Their dorm is a single large room filled with metal cots topped with sleeping bags.

"It's like an orphanage," Whitson said. "All that's missing are plates of gruel at the foot of each bed."

The fire station, expanded three times in 60 years, includes part of a gas station that was towed across the street and attached to the main building. Cracked walls, rank carpets and unexpected steps up and down between rooms give the place a Dickensian squalor.

"It's a challenging way to live and work," said Capt. Charlie Casalnuovo, a 19-year veteran of the department, which includes 19 firefighters, paramedics and officers and an administrative aide. "There's a lot of stuff we need, like a compressor room for the scuba gear, a room for the medical gear, a place to wash our turn-out gear, which this building was never meant to provide."

The city's police force of 22 sworn officers and five support staff fares no better.

The Emergency Operations Center is a metal locker equipped with two telephones, some manuals and a box of tools. The room it sits in serves as squad room, briefing room, library, office, equipment room and, when all five doors to the room are closed, as the place rape victims are interviewed.

Down the hall behind a hollow door is the armory, where weapons and ammunition are stored. A ceiling tile with a smoke alarm attached has fallen to the floor.

"Oops," said Sgt. Scott Wyatt. "The way these buildings are put together, a change in the air pressure blows the tiles off the ceiling."

Out back in a weedy lot sits the cargo container that serves as the Police Department's evidence locker. Frigid in winter, sizzling in summer, the double doors swing open to emit a complicated scent of fungus, marijuana, old blood and sweaty clothes.

"This is our cold storage," Wyatt said, and pointed to the type of mini-fridge found in college dorm rooms. "It kind of puts us in a tough spot when we try to recruit good people to work here."

And to get good people to stay.

"I have trouble looking our police officers and firefighters in the eye, knowing they're dedicated to my safety and I can't do anything to assure theirs," said J.R. Roberts, Sausalito's mayor.

Roberts said he's glad city residents took an interest in the process, but wonders why they stepped in so late.

"For a community in an affluent city like ours to have facilities in this condition is a travesty--it puts our community at risk," Roberts said. "The steering committee has to do its work quickly and well."

And if December rolls around without a new plan in place?

"Then the City Council will move forward, no matter what," Roberts said. "Our lives and our safety depend on it."

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