Monterey County, Confidential - Soledad
Recall movement is fueled by economic woes, labor disputes.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Soledad is feeling tension, not momentum. Dissidents are close to starting a petition to recall two councilmembers, and a union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the city for laying off six employees.
The Committee for a Better Soledad wants to remove Mayor Richard Ortiz and Mayor Pro Tem Martha Camacho, claiming they mismanaged city funds by overspending and irresponsibly increasing salaries for police and firemen, depleting the city reserves $4 million to $10 million.
Sam Martinez, the recall committee’s spokesman, says residents want change. “I kept getting more and more feedback about how upset and frustrated people were with the leadership,” he says. “The money is supposedly there, and then all of a sudden it’s not there.”
Camacho says the allegations are false. “They are giving people bad information and scaring people into believing the city is bankrupt,” she says, adding that the police raises, an 18 percent pay increase over two years, were approved in 2007 to attract and retain officers.
In recent history Soledad’s general fund reserves were never as high as $10 million. The city’s fund balance is now about $4.7 million, Finance Director Stephen Compton says.
City officials riled up recall proponents when, in June, they laid off six workers, three of whom had been at the city for more than 20 years, including Martinez’s girlfriend, Irene Rodriguez. The employees were members of Service Employees International Union Local 521, which started representing general employees in March.
SEIU Local 521 filed an unfair labor practice charge against the city, alleging that three of the laid-off workers were members of the union’s bargaining team, which was negotiating its first contract with the city when the pink slips were issued. “This amounts to retaliation, not only for serving on the bargaining team, but for having recently participated in the union drive,” the complaint says. The union also alleges the city also didn’t give the union a chance to negotiate the layoffs and issued them unilaterally.
City manager Adela Gonzalez says the union’s claims are false. Ortiz and Camacho say they shouldn’t be blamed for the layoffs, which were necessary due to a more than $1 million shortfall brought on by the recession. “We don’t have any hidden agendas in regard to who was cut,” Camacho says.
Ortiz says the recall is a power grab by Christopher Bourke, a former councilman, who lost the November 2008 election to Ortiz. “[Bourke] took an opportunity to utilize disgruntled ex-employees to go out and get signatures because they were angry at the council,” he says.
Bourke, who is a supporter of the recall campaign, says he’ll run for mayor if nobody else steps up. “I’d be happy being off the council with decent people on there,” he says. Bourke says Ortiz crossed the line when he said at a candidate’s forum that the city had millions of dollars lying around, only to turn around later and say the city has a budget crisis. He adds that Ortiz could have done more to help developers deliver a proposed Wal-Mart and movie theater.
“I made some comments that the city was in good financial strength,” Ortiz says, adding that the city still has reserves and isn’t going bankrupt. As for Wal-Mart, he says, Creekbridge pulled out of the project because of financial difficulties and the movie theater developer is having the same problem. If the recall proponents are so worried about the city’s finances, Ortiz says, they should wait until the next general election in November 2010 instead of calling for a special election, which will cost the city up to $80,000.
While the city could see new faces on the dais, it already, like Pacific Grove, has to hire a new police chief. Former Chief Richard Cox retired early due to his medical condition, city officials say. Steven Belcher, who retired as Santa Cruz’s top cop, is filling in as interim chief.