The Long Beach City Council’s defeat last week of a long-awaited labor contract with the local police union left the Republican Party coalition majority saying the two Democrats, who abstained from voting, “ducked” the vote after saying they would vote against it.
In turn, Democratic observers said the Republican coalition, whose three members voted against the contract, made a political move to woo taxpayers because they knew an arbitrator would likely impose equal or more generous terms.
The five-member council rejected a proposal on April 20th that would have awarded two years’ worth of retroactive raises amounting to nearly 7 percent of officers’ salaries. The projected cost, with longevity bonuses and other payments, was $620,000.
The 77-member union voted to reject an earlier contract in December, after which a state-appointed mediator recommended raises of 3.5 percent and 3.25 percent to cover July 2008 through June 2010. Now an arbitrator will be assigned to resolve the dispute.
Before the vote, Democratic council members Len Torres and Mike Fagen indicated they would not approve the agreement because it didn’t contain meaningful givebacks, the city needed to rein in police spending, and they didn't have enough information.
But after meeting with a member of the police department, Torres said he decided to abstain. “We did say we’d vote against it,” Torres said. “That was our original intention until we discussed it further with the police.” He added: “We do want to maintain a friendship with the police department.”
Fagen said he didn’t “duck” the vote. Rather, he said, he couldn’t vote for or against the contract because the administration hadn’t provided the financial details he needed to make a determination.
Councilman John McLaughlin, a registered Democrat and retired city firefighter who was elected on the Long Beach Republican Coalition ticket, said he voted “no” after listening to constituents’ grievances about police department spending and weighing such factors as overtime costs and longevity bonuses.
“I couldn’t understand them shunting off the vote and abstaining,” said McLaughlin, adding that it’s possible an arbitrator will recommend less generous terms. “It seemed to me for political purposes so now they can say, ‘We didn’t vote against the contract.’”
Al Symons, a Democratic committeeman, said Councilman Thomas Sofield Jr.’s vote “caught some of the people in the audience totally by surprise.” Sofield, whose father is acting police commissioner, said he voted "no" because he disagreed with the mediator’s recommendations.
"The best political maneuver is to throw it back at the mediator now with the binding arbitration,” Symons said, since the city must accept those terms.
The Long Beach Police Department is the fourth largest law enforcement force in Nassau County.
Long Beach Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Michael Bulik did not respond to requests for comment.