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Residents make clear statement: No sheriff’s contract for Claremont

by Matthew Bramlett | news@claremont-courier.com

The Claremont city council officially said no to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Tuesday night. In a unanimous vote, the Claremont city council decided to cease further exploration of contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for policing services.

Tuesday’s council meeting featured dozens of Claremonters speaking out in favor of keeping the Claremont Police Department. The chamber was standing room only, with a line to speak going out the door.

The audience sometimes cheered when other speakers finished. One community member, Joyce Sauter, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “no no no sheriff’s takeover.”

“What the vast majority of this community wants is their own police department,” Councilmember Ed Reece said. “And we need to show them that support.”

The idea of contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for policing services gained traction after the defeat of Measure CR, the proposed sales tax increase that proponents claimed would have alleviated much of the city’s current budget woes. Supporters of the sheriff plan said it would save the city millions of dollars.

According to a presentation from City Manager Tara Schultz and Assistant City Manager Chris Paulson, that may not be the case.

There would be a phased approach for exploring a contract with LASD. Phase one would be the initial study request, and phase two is a six-to-nine month cost assessment that could cost up to $150,000, Ms. Schultz said.

But the real costs lie with CalPERS, the state public employee retirement system to which the city already owes millions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

Mr. Paulson said that if the city were to contract with the sheriff, which does not have CalPERS, they would have two options—cancel their CalPERS contract, which will leave the city on the hook for up to $81 million in termination liability, or declare the department “inactive,” which would still leave the city responsible for paying around $3 million.

A city can only declare the department inactive if every member of the PD were to leave the force or find another job elsewhere, Mr. Paulson said.

Assistant City Attorney Joseph Larsen also noted that the city would also have to negotiate with employee associations involved—the Claremont Police Officers Association (CPOA), the Claremont Police Management Association (CPMA) and the Claremont Management Association (CMA) before anything happens.

All told, shifting to the sheriff could potentially be an expensive endeavor.

“Nothing is absolutely free,” Ms. Schultz said.

In a conversation with Mr. Reece, Claremont Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen acknowledged the department had recruitment issues due to the “uncertainty of the future,” namely the officers working without a current contract and the discussion about the LASD. But recruitment issues are happening at all police departments, she added. Some departments have had to offer cash incentives or lower their standards to attract more officers.

“And I refuse to lower our standards here. I think our community deserves the best police officers,” she said, to applause from the audience.

Before public comment began, City Clerk Shelley Desautels said the city received hundreds of emails and calls from the community over the past week—411 in favor of keeping the Claremont Police Department, and only two in favor of contracting with the sheriff.

Nearly all of the roughly 40 people who spoke during public comment were in favor of keeping the Claremont PD—spending over two hours urging the council to quash the idea of a sheriff contract.

Some called the consideration a waste of time, while others said they would happily be taxed more if that money would go toward the CPD. Many speakers highlighted various issues with the LASD, including low staffing, department gangs, budget issues, long response times and re-hiring problem deputies.

Rose Ash touched upon the community-based policing that Claremont is known for.

“To subcontract with the LASD based on the desire to save money would not only be fiscally unsound in the long term and the short term, but devastating to the social cohesiveness upon which this community prides itself,” Ms. Ash said.

Marcella Zita expressed concern about staffing issues in the LASD, specifically noting Lancaster had been complaining that the number of officers patrolling their street was below the terms of their contract.

“It seems like if we can keep something in house, it’s always best to do so,” she said.

Jim Belna, who has repeatedly asked the council to explore contracting with the sheriff, said Tuesday that the issue was not about money for him, it was about public safety. He implored the council to cut drastically from other departments and send millions of more dollars to the CPD or, he claimed, it may fail.

“You better start thinking what’s going to happen the day when the last officer, the last guy on patrol walks out the door and there’s nobody there to replace them,” he said.

While acknowledging the budget issues the city is currently facing, the council was unanimous in their support for the police department. Councilmember Corey Calaycay noted that while there may be more division in Claremont in recent years, both sides came together to support the police.

“I think what we saw tonight was a version of it’s a wonderful life for our police department,” he said. “They paid it forward and they collected tonight.”

Councilmember Jed Leano said the vast majority of people in Claremont want to fix the budget and do it with the Claremont Police Department. He pointed to a moment when Chief Vander Veen pledged to protect worshippers at the Islamic Center of Claremont after the center received hate mail following the 2016 election.

“And ever since I heard that statement, I have known that no matter what happens as a matter of policy or budget, I will always make sure that I am there to support the Claremont Police Department,” he said.

The next city council meeting will take place on February 25.

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