Elections Reflections Part Two: Public Safety Endorsements

The backing of the Public Safety Unions in Torrance nearly guarantees victory at the polls. In this past election, their chosen candidates took the mayoral race and the top 5 councilmember positions. Why do their selected candidates do so well? The answer is more nuanced, but the most obvious reason is money. Campaign finance documents reveal that in this past election Public Safety Unions spent upwards of $40K supporting candidates. That’s drastically more than any other one entity. Why are the unions so invested in the political process? I found my endorsement interview with the Torrance Police Officers Association (TPOA) revealing in this regard.  Prior to the interview, the TPOA asked candidates to complete a short questionnaire.  That questionnaire consisted of the 5 questions below:

What is your history in Torrance?

What is your stance on pension reform as it pertains to Public Safety?

Should Torrance Police Officers be differentiated between other City employees in terms of salary?

During salary negotiations, the City of Torrance conducts a salary survey of (10) like size cities?  Where would you, as a City Councilmember, work to see members of TPOA?

What differentiates you from other candidates?

As indicated by the focus of these questions, it became clear to me during my 20 minute interview that the TPOA’s endorsement decision rested almost entirely on how I felt about police officer compensation. Nothing else mattered. Did this surprise me? No, not really. Who can honestly blame the TPOA for making something as personal as providing for their families their top priority? I can’t.

What did surprise me, however, was the immense pressure I felt to conform to their position and the complete lack of an open and honest discussion among the candidates on this important issue. I often felt like I either had to toe the union line or risk being branded as anti-public safety and an enemy to not only all police officers and firemen everywhere, but also all other unionized public employees such as teachers. With many public employees counted among my friends and neighbors and with local teachers playing a huge role in my kid’s education, I found this quite an unpleasant and uncomfortable position to be in. I mean let’s be honest; nobody living in Torrance wants to end up on the wrong side of the Torrance PD. I certainly don’t. That’s why no issue caused me more internal consternation and I found my conversations on this topic extremely difficult to navigate as I constantly felt misunderstood.

I think that’s why the mailers sent out by the unions towards the end of the campaign bothered me so much. The mailers had pictures of their endorsed candidates with captions reading things like, “So and so is dedicated to ensure the safety and security of our residents.” And, “such and such will keep public safety his top priority and give first responders the tools they need.” I wanted to scream out, “Hey, I care about public safety too. I also want to keep our community safe.” Who doesn’t?

Of course, what the mailers didn’t mention was that the pictured candidates were also the candidates that fell most in line with the union position on compensation for employees. I couldn’t help but wonder what people would have thought if the captions read, “so and so is dedicated to ensuring Police Officers can retire after 30 years at 90% of pay” or “such and such will guarantee firemen don’t contribute any percentage of their salary to their pensions.” Would the public even notice? If they did notice, might it possibly illicit a more genuine conversation about the issue? I get why the unions spin their message in the way that they do and I don’t begrudge them for doing so. That’s politics and it’s hard to argue with an approach that yields results. Still, I can’t help but yearn for a community that demands a more real and honest discussion on such critical issues such as how we compensate our city employees. It would also be nice if that conversation allowed for people to have differing viewpoints on that issue without them having to fear being labeled as anti-union or anti-public safety.

After 16 Year Battle Former Police Officer Delivers $600K Challenge to Mayor Scotto

A tense uneasiness rested over the council chambers this past Tuesday evening when gulf war veteran and former Marine Sniper John Brumbaugh rose to speak and issued a $600K challenge to Mayor Scotto and the Council.  The challenge stemmed from a long legal battle Brumbaugh fought with the City in which he sought his reinstatement to the Police Department after having been dismissed in 1998.  The City of Torrance has spent at least $570K litigating this case.  According to Brumbaugh, “most of these funds have been spent unwittingly defending the illegal, unethical, and out of policy background investigation conducted by then Lt. Ross Bartlett.”

Brumbaugh urged the Mayor and council to “order a comprehensive independent investigation into the conduct/factual nature of the background investigation Lt. Bartlett submitted to the City Council.”  In his statement, Brumbaugh promised Mayor Scotto that he would reimburse the City of Torrance the entire $570K already spent in litigation, plus the cost of the independent investigation if that proposed investigation does not uncover the ethical violations he believes that it will.

All of this stems from an incident in 1998 in which his then girlfriend claimed she was physically assaulted.  He was convicted at that time, but the convictions were overturned seven years later on appeal.  To help win his case on appeal, Brumbaugh accumulated substantial evidence of his innocence including a letter his girlfriend had written him acknowledging that she had lied to the detective about the assault because she was mad at him.

The Torrance Police Department dismissed Brumbaugh after his initial conviction.  Brumbaugh claims, however, that the Department promised to reconsider his termination should his criminal conviction be overturned on appeal.  That’s why he sought reinstatement to the Department once his name was finally cleared.  The City, however, refused to entertain his request for reinstatement and Brumbaugh ended up turning to the courts once again for justice.

That course seemed to yield positive results as the court, at one point, directed the City to reinstate Brumbaugh absent a compelling reason not to do so. Prior to the reinstatement, however, the Council ordered that a background investigation be conducted by then Lt. Ross Bartlett. The Council then relied upon information contained in the report in their decision not to reinstate Brumbaugh. Brumbaugh, however, claims that the report generated by Bartlett contained evidence the Police Department knew was factually untrue and that relevant positive information was purposely left out.

Now, nearly 16 years later and having exhausted all of his legal options Brumbaugh showed up at the council meeting and made an emotional appeal directly to the Council. In his speech he referenced a letter he had sent directly to Mayor Scotto that he believes was intercepted by the City Manager. In that letter Brumbaugh commented:

“The fact of the matter is you [Mayor Scotto] and the other City Council members have been so thoroughly deceived by the Police Departments Background Investigation (regarding my fitness for duty) that for all intents and purposes the documentation you relied upon to deny my reinstatement was a complete sham.”

A former Daily Breeze reporter, Ian Gregor, who initially wrote a negative article pertaining to Brumbaugh, also spoke at the council meeting in Brumbaugh’s defense. Gregor claimed that Brumbaugh had reached out to him after he wrote his initial story. After sharing with him thousands of pages of evidence in support of his claims Gregor became convinced of Brumbaugh’s position. Gregor also asserted that Bartlett had interviewed him as part of the background investigation and that Gregor had provided a positive character assessment of Brumbaugh at that time. His interview as well statements from others that gave positive assessments were not included in the report by Bartlett.

In response to Brumbaugh’s plea, Mayor Scotto meagerly offered that a staff member might contact him. Thus, the question remains what, if anything, can or should the Council do? Is Brumbaugh a tragic victim of a Department that cast off and left for dead one of its own and that is now trying to save face? Or is he just another disgruntled former employee with an ax to grind? I might normally think the latter, but his impressive display of perseverance in pursuing this matter for the past 16 years has me wondering if there isn’t some scenario in which Mayor Scotto could take Brumbaugh at his word and order the requested independent investigation. After all if Brumbaugh’s claims are proven unfounded, then the City stakes to recoup its $600K invested into the matter.

What do you think? You can review Brumbaugh’s plea to the council here starting at the 02:09:00 mark.

“Just Rewards” – Torrance’s $146K Gift Card Reward Program for Ridesharing

This evening the City Council approved an $80K one year contract to “Just Rewards” to administer a gift card reward program to city employees that take advantage of alternative forms of transportation such as carpooling, walking, public transit, vanpooling, and bicycling. This matter was heard under the consent calendar which is reserved for matters that are considered routine and therefore not open for discussion. I believe, however, that this use of taxpayer dollars is worthy of a conversation. According to the staff report:

“Just Rewards provides incentives in the form of gift cards from various companies…this service is necessary as utilizing Just Rewards will reduce the City staff time as the company procures, coordinates, and distributes the rideshare incentives. If the City staff were required to take on these tasks it would cause the program to be too labor intensive to manage.”

In addition to the $80K expense approved for Just Rewards, the City also hired a consultant on a $65K one year contract to help market and promote the Program to city employees. Between the two contracts, the City approved nearly $150K to encourage employees to rideshare.

I believe in ridesharing and the benefits to the environment as well as the traffic alleviation it provides. Do we really need, however, to spend this amount of money promoting ridesharing amongst city employees? The staff report included data reflecting that the current ridesharing program only has 530 employee participants. Of these, my guess is that a large percentage would likely be commuting to work under some type of ridesharing arrangement without any designed Ridesharing Program marketed by the city.  Given this information, I have a hard time believing the Program couldn’t be managed within the existing pool of city employees. This is definitely a reward for those city employees willing to rideshare, but I’m not so sure it is a “Just” reward for the Torrance taxpayer.

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