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Petaluma restructures police department, lays off 5

Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 7:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 7:46 p.m.

Petaluma restructured its police department Wednesday and laid off five other workers after employee concessions couldn't be won in budget-cutting negotiations.

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Dave Sears

The City Council voted earlier this month to reconfigure the police leadership and eliminate five other positions to save $450,000. That triggered “impact bargaining,” where last-minute alternatives to cut the money from the city's unions could have forestalled employee cuts.

Capt. Dave Sears, the No. 2 officer in the police department, was demoted to lieutenant under the cost-saving plan, a move that has caused concern within the police department and among some members of the City Council.

Sears, with Petaluma for 12 years including seven as a captain, said he is exploring legal options following the demotion, which will cut his pay by approximately $35,000, about 20 percent of his yearly salary.

“I think there are other solutions that could have been worked out. But so much of this has been done in the blind, so last-minute, we really don't know,” he said.

The restructuring plan was proposed to the council by interim Police Chief Dan Fish, who, like Sears, is also a captain.

Fish, who has filled the vacant chief's position for more than two years, told the council the two captains' positions are no longer necessary and encouraged their abolishment effective Wednesday. Both Sears and Fish, should he not be hired as permanent chief, would then be reclassified at the lower rank and lower salary.

For Sears, that means a pay cut of approximately $35,000 now, to a lieutenant's pay of about $140,000. Fish will continue to be paid as interim chief, more than $180,000.

The council approved the proposal on a 4-3 vote, with Mayor David Glass and Councilmembers Teresa Barrett, Mike Healy and Gabe Kearney supporting it.

Councilwoman Tiffany Renee said she believed Fish's recommendation was self-serving, given that it would eliminate his closest competition for chief.

Councilmen Mike Harris and Chris Albertson argued that a department needs a second-in-charge to handle day-to-day operations under the department head.

Albertson, and some in the Police Department, expressed concern that the move to flatten the leadership structure essentially stifles upward mobility within the department.

They are concerned that younger officers with ambition will use Petaluma as a stepping-stone to advance to other departments, creating high turnover and less long-term experience for Petaluma.

Sears said he is considering filing a claim against the city over his demotion and pay cut. A claim is the first legal step before a lawsuit can be filed against a public agency.

“I was disappointed because I don't think any study was done to see whether it was feasible,” he said.

Sears, 44, declined to discuss specifically what his claim would entail, but two sources within the department said it would allege unfair labor practices by the city.

The sources, who both declined to speak on the record, said the bargaining unit that represents public safety middle management twice proposed other options to save $35,000 by spreading the cuts around to more than just Sears. Both times, city negotiators rejected their offers, the sources said.

Fish and City Manager John Brown then proposed to save the $35,000 by abolishing both captains' positions and demoting Sears.

Brown didn't return a phone call seeking comment and Fish was on vacation.

Council members said they weren't aware of other employee proposals to more broadly spread the cuts.

In an interview, Kearney said he would have been open to considering other options.

“But do I want to keep Dave Sears in the department at a lower salary and lay off an animal service technician so that as result we can only operate the animal shelter two days a week? No,” he said.

Glass said the issue was one of efficiency.

“The only question to me is, can we provide the same services to the city (without captains),” he said, acknowledging it was a “severe salary reduction” for Sears. “It's an awful thing for the person who is getting the pay cut, but that employee still has a good, quality job.”

Kearney said he hoped the city's unions might come forward with concessions before Sears' demotion and the other layoffs took effect.

Sears has been a captain for seven years — often working on cost-savings measures.

“That's one thing I took pride in last year,” he said. He said he renegotiated a couple of contracts that saved the city $100,000.

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