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Here’s hoping the police union can have a better year in 2012

Like many Claremont residents, I have sat and watched as events with the Claremont Police Officers Association (CPOA) and the city have unfolded over the past several months.

First it was the contract negotiations, which got down right ugly at times over health insurance payments and cost of living increases. Then with Village Venture, tempers flared when the Claremont Chamber told CPOA they could not set up a booth at the event. With that came a lawsuit stating their First Amendment rights were violated. The fact COPA had not paid or formally registered for a spot at the event seemed not to faze them.

I have conflicting feelings here because I like the Claremont Police Department. They do a great job; especially working with reduced resources that have impacted most departments. To my family personally, they were a big help during a time of need a couple of years ago. Former police Captain Gary Jenkins was a buddy of mine in high school and I was really sorry to see him go.

So out of this respect I wanted to offer the CPOA some advice about managing public opinion. If public opinion, or what I call the “silent majority,” is ambiguous about the union’s point of view, nothing productive will move forward on the issues they care so deeply about.

As we have seen all over the country, the mood of American citizens has been hugely impacted by several years of recessionary times. They are saving more, spending less and expect government to live within their means. Most people have made some sort of financial sacrifice by tightening their belts. For cities that has meant budget cuts across the board. That includes Claremont.

I know the CPOA had not planned to do this, but between the contract negotiations and the Village Venture lawsuit, the police union is simply getting walloped in the court of public opinion. The silent majority may not be saying much, but Claremont residents are clearly numb to the issues CPOA is negotiating.

My advice is to focus on some good news. Stop talking about how the city has been unfair with contract negotiations and agree to the terms other city employees have accepted. No one wants to take money out of your pocket, but these are touch economic times…and we are all in the same boat. Otherwise it simply looks like the union wants special treatment. The public is in no mood for favoritism, or spending money many feel the city does not have.

In April when contract talks come up again, it is my hope we really don’t hear the same rhetoric. Live to negotiate another day. And in the meantime, show residents what great contributions the Claremont police make to the city.

My family, the Claremont COURIER and our staff are big defenders of the First Amendment. We have a decades old track record to prove it. Citizens have the right to voice opinions, whatever they are. It’s what makes America…America.

But I had to shake my head when I heard about the CPOA lawsuit against the Claremont Chamber and the city. The issue is not what you had to say, or whether you could say it at Village Venture. It’s about the setting up of a table, or booth, at an event that requires an application and fee.

I’m not going to get into what he or she said at the event, that’s for the lawyers to figure out, but we do know a few simple facts. Each year the chamber files a special event permit to conduct Village Venture business on the streets of the Village. Businesses that want to participate in the event must work with the chamber to register and pay for a specific booth location. It has become one of Claremont’s premiere events.

The Claremont COURIER, who is protected by the First Amendment, has registered for the event and paid the fee for a booth location every year since the Village Venture started. The Claremont Chamber has always been accommodating in helping us through this process. Our First Amendment press rights do not lead us to expect any special favors in getting a free booth location, or just showing up and crashing the party. We should be treated like every other business at the event. You have to pay, to play.

So why couldn’t the CPOA do this? Why couldn’t they simply pay and register like the other 400 plus businesses at the event? The First Amendment does not give organizations permission to show up anywhere, anytime.

So when the CPOA brought a table to Village Venture with their political information, they basically had no place to set up. When they did, people complained and the chamber took action to move them. During the entire day, we witnessed CPOA supporters passing out literature to the public. To me, that’s a great compromise. Their freedom of speech (passing out information) was not violated. It was only their desire to set up a booth without registering and paying that was stopped.

Even with some misinformation being circulated, my guess is that the silent majority knows CPOA’s lawsuit is out of line. Unfortunately, it makes them look really bad. Like during contract negotiations, it seems as if the union wanted special treatment again.

There are many comparisons I could make about how far the First Amendment reaches. When the COURIER covers a CHS football game for example, we are guests of the high school. We don’t expect to get in free, and they give permission for our photographer to be on the sideline. Schools are public property but we know we can’t walk into a classroom whenever we want. With some public events, we might have to work from a sidewalk orother designated areas. The First Amendment doesn’t give us access to everything, all the time.

Over the years in the July 4th parade, groups marched carrying signs being quite vocal about controversial topics like the Vietnam War and gay rights. Some said the parade was not the appropriate venue for those comments. My father Martin and myself defended their right to free speech in our columns.

But there’s one key difference between CPOA and these groups in the parade. They registered for the event.

—Peter Weinberger

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