Steve Anderson installs one of the billboards the police union is using… (Craig Sanders, The Record )
STOCKTON — The first eyebrow-raising salvo in the fight between the cops and this city was the billboards.
"Welcome to the 2nd most dangerous city in California: Stop laying off cops!" read one at the city's entrance. Other billboards posted by the Stockton Police Officers' Assn. depicted splattered blood, gave a running tally of the city's record number of homicides -- and the city manager's phone number.
Since then, the fight moved closer to home: The police union bought the house next to City Manager Bob Deis.
"In 30 years of labor negotiations I've never seen anything like this," said Jonathan Holtzman, a San Francisco lawyer representing Stockton. "Tires slashed; late-night phone calls -- but buying the house next door to the boss?"
As cash-strapped cities up and down the state demand concessions from employees, the police union in nearly bankrupt Stockton is fighting hard -- and some say dirty -- to keep the fiscal crisis from breaking its contract.
"Everybody knows that revenues in cities are down because of the recession. But in Stockton, it is more than that," said Officer Steve Leonesio, the union president. "The city spent money they didn't have on a sports arena and downtown structures and then when it all hit rock bottom they went after public safety. We're sticking up for what is right."
Founded during the Gold Rush, Stockton, an inland port city of 292,000 where much of the Central Valley's agricultural exports are loaded into ships, doesn't have a "good" side and a "bad" side of town.
Instead, there are pockets of inner blight and leafy, gracious neighborhoods intertwined throughout the city.
Leonesio, a SWAT team member, insists without a wink or a nudge that the location of the union's first real estate purchase is a coincidence.
He said that when the union was seeking to buy a house to diversify its investments, this home on North Country Club Boulevard was the only one it could find not surrounded by other foreclosures.
Stockton, with a 20% unemployment rate, has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country (flip-flopping with Las Vegas for the dubious distinction of first).
Deis doesn't buy it.
"This is right out of 1930s Chicago, hardball union politics," he told the local paper, the Stockton Record.
The city is suing the union to force the sale of the house.
In court documents Deis states, "I believe the SPOA purchased the property ... for the sole purpose of coercing me in the exercise of my duties as city manager."
He describes a union member using a backhoe to clip trees during his wife and daughters' backyard birthday party.
The 315-member police force is down more than 25% from its highest staffing levels in 2008; and the city forced wage and benefit reductions on officers while trying to close a deficit of more than $20 million.
The union is suing the city, challenging its declaration of a fiscal emergency that allows it to break employees' contracts.
If the union wins, the city -- which is already flirting with bankruptcy -- could owe up to $10 million in back wages.
City leaders declined to comment on pending litigation.
Meanwhile, the union has rented the house -- spiffed up after what neighbors describe as noisy repairs -- to a "nice county retiree with two dogs," Leonesio said.
To his mind, the real estate more central to the dispute is the 10,000-seat sports arena, waterfront hotel, marina and other development the city helped finance in more prosperous times.
Stockton has $87 million in outstanding redevelopment bonds that were sold in 2006.
On a recent evening, the glow of retro-style lampposts reflected in the waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
A few blocks away, neon lights announced a gleaming plaza of shops and a movie theater.
The 16-screen theater and surrounding restaurants had fewer customers than the number of screens.
In front of a Starbucks, two policewomen struggled to handcuff a homeless woman who had punched a passing stranger.
"Another Wednesday night in Stockton," Mike Sota, 23, said as the woman, still screaming obscenities, was placed in the squad car and he returned to his job as a waiter at Moo Moo's Burger Barn.
"At least this time, the cops got here in less than an hour," he said.
Sota saves $50 from every paycheck toward moving out of town. He dreams of living on the other side of the coastal range, near the ocean.
"The people there are too glamour-like for me. But I'll just be that quiet guy out surfing at 4 a.m."
The restaurant's manager Jodi Cantrill, 33, has $2,000 saved for leaving.
"It's all the panhandlers and crack heads, the pop-pop-pop of gunshots. North, South, I'll flip a coin, I just don't want to be here anymore," she said.
Things used to be better at Moo Moo's. Even weeknights were packed. But the recession hit and business dwindled.
The city cut bicycle officers from the plaza, the center of the city's redevelopment plan.
In June, an 11-year-old girl was shot in the leg while sitting on a bench with her brother outside the theater.
Since then, the plaza has been nearly empty. Cantrill tells customers seeing a movie after dark to have the theater's security guard walk them to their cars when they leave.
In the early mornings, Cantrill walks the elegantly refurbished waterfront along the port where the state's cherries and almonds and rice leave California.
She says the birds and the boats -- and on the days that she is lucky, a seal -- are antidotes for what she will see during the rest of her day.
"They did a good job of giving the waterfront a face-lift," she said. "But the city tried to dig for gold and they dug our grave."