Police Union’s House Purchase Still Focus Of Attention In Stockton

STOCKTON, CA &#8211 In the annals of both labor and neighbor relations, a low point registered recently in Stockton, where the police union, feuding with the city manager, purchased the house next door to his.

While the union publicly contemplated whom to rent the house to – a police officer or a family in need of subsidized housing, perhaps – the city accused police of intimidating and harassing City Manager Bob Deis, and complained in court when a police officer on a backhoe clipped Deis’ maple tree.

“Him and his wife yelled at me all day long,” said Jose Ulloa, the officer who was using the backhoe. He said it was an accident.

While the flagging economy and declining tax revenues have strained relations between public employees and local officials throughout California, hostilities in one of the nation’s most violent and budget-weary cities are approaching all-out war.

“There isn’t a hell of a lot you agree with when you’re broke,” said Gary Podesto, a former Stockton mayor. “That makes it a lot tougher. But the vitriol doesn’t help.”

Animosity in Stockton began to rise last year when city officials, facing a multimillion-dollar deficit and flirting with bankruptcy, declared a financial emergency and imposed wage and benefit reductions on police.

The union filed a lawsuit claiming breach of contract, and initiated a public relations campaign unlike any in its history, installing billboards throughout the city tracking Stockton’s “body count.”

One billboard on a street running into town featured blood spatter and read, “Welcome to the 2nd most dangerous city in California: Stop laying off cops!”

Business leaders complained, and the union toned down the messages.

The company hired to update the “body count” on each billboard “couldn’t keep up with the numbers,” said Officer Steve Leonesio, the union president.

The statistics are dismal. Last week, Stockton posted its 55th homicide of the year, matching a record set in 1992. The number of police officers, meanwhile, is down more than 25 percent from its one-time high.

“They’ve cut services – I’m talking across the board – they’ve cut staff, the revenues are down, crime is up,” Leonesio said. “I mean, show me a positive that they’ve done, even with (Deis) in there. Nothing has improved.”

With the majority of its shrinking general fund dedicated to police and fire, city officials said they had no choice but to reduce spending in those areas, and they reached an accord with firefighters earlier this year.

But for a police union that once enjoyed a relatively favorable status at City Hall, said Bob Benedetti, a political science professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton, the severity of the city’s concession demands was jarring.

“I think there was a sense that Stockton would always rally around the police, which the police have internalized,” he said.

Deis may have been uninhibited by that history. When the City Council hired him from Sonoma County last year, it was attracted at least in part to his reputation for aggressive labor negotiating.

But since arriving in Stockton, he has not always exhibited the thickest skin. Deis has already announced once – and taken back – that he was quitting. He complained when the union bought the house next to his, and he objected again, the Record of Stockton reported, when he found on his Toyota Prius a sticker with the image of a boy urinating on a pair of dice.

“This is right out of 1930s Chicago, hardball union politics and games,” Deis told the Record when he learned police were making offers on the house next door.

The union had never before purchased residential property, and in a city full of bank-owned homes, many disbelieved its claim that the location was a coincidence, that it was only diversifying its investments.

“Of all the properties in the entire city, and a union that has never invested in local real estate, they’re going to buy the house that just happens to be next door to the city manager?” Vice Mayor Kathy Miller said. “I just think it’s preposterous.”

She said, “It’s sad, because it’s engendered some really, really hard feelings.”

Ulloa, the backhoe operator, was among a handful of police officers – and no fewer than four TV stations – at the union’s residence for an open house Monday night. The police officers showcased improvements they had made, including fixing code violations that existed before they bought the home.

In a court filing, the union said that “Mr. Deis has no special right to select and pre-approve his neighbors.” But because of the controversy, Leonesio said, the union decided not to rent the house to a police officer after all. A retired county employee is moving in, he said.

Deis did not attend the open house. A few neighbors who did said the house looked nice, and they had never seen police officers harassing the city manager. Katherine Lind, who lives behind the union’s house, said Deis was overreacting.

But few people in Stockton or elsewhere believe the purchase was a coincidence.

“This is a strategy that is being done all over California in different forms,” said Michael Semler, a government professor at California State University, Sacramento. “They are engaged in either sympathy or scare, the S and S campaign.”

But, Semler added, “There’s a very close line between swaying public opinion and intimidation.”

The union’s house purchase, he said, may be “too cute by half.”

From The Sacramento Bee.