Thursday, November 19, 2009
A dozen green “I Support Seaside Police” buttons beamed a silent challenge to the city leaders who’d ousted their charismatic chief.
The turnout was relatively sparse – the Aug. 26 special meeting had been called hastily, to address the unraveling scandal. But the Seaside Police Department’s staunch supporters had managed to show up with their pins, and two regulars of the public comment period gave the council a little hell for Police Chief Steve Cercone’s unexplained Aug. 10 placement on paid administrative leave.
The man who suspended the chief, City Manager Ray Corpuz, was notably absent. A week earlier Cercone had turned the tables by filing a grievance against Corpuz, alleging numerous firable offenses, and the council had called a special meeting to duck into closed session.
Mayor Ralph Rubio attempted to calm his public without saying too much. “I caution you once again from overreaching on what this thing is,” he said. “It could be small, it could be medium, it could be big. We don’t know until the investigation is done.”
It’s become a routine act over the last three months of City Council meetings: Members of the public call for Cercone’s reinstatement and Corpuz’s dismissal, and Rubio responds with a plea for patience. On Nov. 16, a group of 18 Seaside residents submitted a sharply worded public records request demanding more details on the ouster.
By Oct. 15 the mayor’s tone had sharpened. After several Cercone supporters made critical comments, he lectured: “The investigations will come to fruition, and we’ll deal with the facts… You’re working on rumor, you’re working on half-truths, and you’re working on media hype… I’m sorry for being a little irate, but enough is enough.”
As Seaside’s top politician, Rubio is dodging crossfire in a duel between the man who runs the city and the one who keeps the peace.
Since the guns came out in early August, a steady trickle of confidential leads have been leaked to the Weekly and other media. Most of the tips check out – and, not coincidentally, make Corpuz look bad. His camp initially kept its head down, but eventually sources on that side, too, began opening up. Finally, a consistent story has emerged.
Corpuz put Cercone on leave because of a retaliation complaint filed against him by Dep. Chief Louis Lumpkin in July, several weeks after Cercone put Lumpkin on leave for alleged policy violations investigated by the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department.
At least, that’s the official reason. But Cercone’s grievance alleges Corpuz actually suspended him in retaliation for letting the District Attorney in on a potential crime: the alleged stalking of one SSPD officer by another. “There are a number of interims out there, we do not eat our young and we actually do serve a purpose.”
“While I have been ordered by the city not to speak about the specifics of my situation, I can say I have done nothing wrong and the city has not accused me of any wrongdoing,” Cercone writes by e-mail. “I am just waiting to return to work as chief of police.”
The deeper each man digs in his spurs, the more it seems they’re making a zero-sum proposition: “Him or me.”
“We don’t need no stinking badges.”
Some of the more media-friendly dust-ups have targeted interim police bosses Stephen Willis and Don MacQuarrie, who are filling in for the SSPD’s absent chief and administrative deputy chief.
Cercone supporters quickly discovered the city didn’t put Willis through the proper vetting before giving him the chief’s badge, and MacQuarrie was performing a job suspiciously similar to the one in Sausalito he’d been deemed physically unable to perform (and thus eligible for plush disability retirement benefits).
The questions about the interims made news and caught the attention of overseeing agencies. The state Police Officer Standards and Training organization directed Seaside to bring Willis into compliance with interim chief requirements, and the California Public Employees Retirement System is still looking into MacQuarrie’s disability benefits. The confirmation bolsters the Seaside Police Officers Association’s case against Corpuz.
“He hired interim positions inadequately,” says then-POA President Nick Borges, speaking on behalf of the union, which passed a vote of no confidence in the city manager Nov. 10. “It looked really bad, and it definitely raised some issues with some of the members.”
Willis, a retired Sausalito police chief who hauled to Seaside only four days after getting the city’s call, says there was simply no time for him to go through the required background check and psychological exam before starting work. Besides, he says, he never had to clear POST hurdles for his four other interim chief stints. The POST rules on interims – which apply to voluntary members, including SSPD – are rarely followed, he adds. To confirm that, he called more than a dozen other interim chiefs throughout the state.
“At least four or five were not in compliance because they did not know about it, and POST did not enforce it,” he says. But in SSPD’s case, “people stirring up the pot called POST. They felt they needed to take action because it was on their rules and regulations.”
Willis takes responsibility for giving MacQuarrie the deputy chief’s badge, even though the city considers him an interim deputy executive officer: “I felt calling him a deputy chief was important within the department for the employees to understand how he fit into the department structure.”
He cringes over the appearance of the POST and CalPERS issues in Bay Area newspapers. “They were brought up as a distraction and as a means to embarrass the city manager,” he says. “They achieved their goal, even though it was a non-issue.”
He later adds, by e-mail: “There are a number of us [interims] out there, we do not eat our young, and we actually do serve a purpose.”
“I don’t favor looking up to the likes of you.”
Although the SSPD interims made news, the city manager is taking the brunt of the criticism. His past doesn’t help: Corpuz came to Seaside after heavy fallout in Tacoma, where he promoted a police chief who later committed murder-suicide. He was also investigated – and likewise cleared – for alleged insurance fraud. Cercone brings up both issues in his grievance, which contains a litany of arguments for firing the city manager.
Borges says the POA’s recent vote of no confidence has nothing to do with Corpuz’s past, but rather reflects the recent turmoil at SSPD. “The POA feels that he should stick with his qualifications in city management and not get involved in internal issues with the police department,” he says.
Nor, Borges claims, is the no-confidence vote a show of support for the ousted chief. “We elected months ago that we would remain neutral on Cercone,” he says. “We would trust that he would be investigated fairly and objectively. We’re as interested as the public is in finding out what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, with more than 10 percent of its staff on leave, the SSPD’s morale is low. “[POA members] have seen this city at its worst crime-wise, and they know how much work the newer generation of cops have put in,” Borges says. “We are not about to stand by and allow this police department to get this type of reputation.”
But Cercone is not without his own critics. Anonymous online comments accuse the chief of promoting his allies to the command staff, even if they lack the necessary experience.
Cercone responds to the allegations of cronyism by e-mail: “These types of claims are insulting to the professional police department that I have fought for since the day I was hired. Each employee hired and promoted at Seaside PD earned their jobs by honest testing and careful consideration by oral personnel boards and police professionals.”
Although the POA majority voted no confidence in Corpuz, the final tally hasn’t been made public. It’s likely at least some officers have taken the city manager’s side. In a recent city-commissioned survey by the Matrix Consulting group, 50 percent of responding SSPD staffers say the department lacks a clear vision. More than 40 percent feel their opinions are not listened to, problems are not resolved quickly and staff are not held accountable for their actions.
Several sources describe a rift between SSPD’s (mostly male) sworn officers and (mostly female) non-sworn support staff – likely deepened by the looming layoffs. Although the Matrix report recommends cutting patrol and command staff, Cercone has publicly objected to reductions of sworn officers, warning it could lead to litigation. He’s also informed the POA that some non-sworns may be laid off, in contradiction to Corpuz’s focus on trimming the sworn ranks.
Even if Cercone is cleared on Lumpkin’s complaint, other factors may affect his chances at reinstatement.
There’s the question of how he dealt with Code Enforcement Officer Vanessa Alcaraz’s sexual harassment complaints against Officer Barry Pasquarosa and Cmdr. Mike Kimball, among others, which were filed with state and federal agencies. If the SSPD failed to respond appropriately, Seaside could potentially be held liable. That may explain why Cercone and Corpuz disagreed about whether to treat the alleged stalking as a potential crime or an internal matter. That the DA ended up dropping the investigation doesn’t help Cercone’s case.
Finally, Cercone’s grievance against Corpuz not only alleges retaliation and criminal obstruction, but also mismanagement and employee abuse. In it, Cercone complains that “Corpuz covertly installed an interim chief under the cover of darkness” and dredges up dirt pre-dating his 2005 Seaside hire.
In an ironic twist, Cercone’s complaint of Corpuz’s retaliation may be viewed as the chief’s own revenge against his boss.
“Don’t say it’s a fine mornin’ or I’ll shoot ya.”
In the midst of the Cercone-Corpuz showdown, a recession is crippling the city. With public safety representing almost 70 percent of Seaside’s budget, the ax is hovering over both the fire and police departments.
Cue the Oct. 7 Matrix report, a $47,000 management and staffing study of Seaside’s public safety departments which, like the movie, offers the city a sort of red pill – a dose of harsh reality about the police and fire departments’ inefficiencies, with cost-cutting recommendations.
Both branches reacted defensively. In mid-October about a dozen members of the Seaside Firefighters Association crowded into the City Council chambers to call the proposed layoffs “counterproductive and dangerous,” turning the blame back on City Hall.
The POA followed up with its own missive. “Given the cuts which have already been made, we feel that the study was a waste of valuable taxpayer dollars,” states a POA press release. “We ask that the City of Seaside look elsewhere to save money.”
But the numbers are stark: The city is facing a $2.1 million projected budget gap. Before resorting to layoffs, Corpuz says, the city will trim costs through early retirements, reduced expenditures, negotiations with bargaining units and other measures. “This is just a study,” he says of the Matrix report. “We are reviewing it for implementation… It’s a little premature to say what we will and won’t do.”
Both police and fire unions point out that Measure R, a sales tax hike voters approved in February 2008, was expected to fund roughly a dozen new positions for each branch. Instead, fire got three new hires and police got two. But Corpuz counters that the recession has rewritten all the city’s plans; Measure R merely forestalled layoffs this long.
“There’s gold in them thar hills!”
As if things weren’t rough enough, the development projects Seaside’s banking on are in a holding pattern.
The Urban Village redevelopment plan, which envisions Broadway Avenue as a sort of local Santana Row, has barely made progress in the past two years. Reggie Jackson’s much-publicized Landmark project, which would put a hotel on the corner of Del Monte and Canyon Del Rey boulevards, recently extended its exclusive negotiating agreement with the city, but hasn’t made any commitments to the project. The City Center complex, the only part of the Urban Village footprint that has been built, is languishing half-empty on the corner of Fremont Boulevard and Broadway.
About a dozen other projects are likewise mired in the crappy economy, their prospects worsened by a state cease-and-desist order that could cost Seaside more than 40 acre-feet of critical water credits. The only project that’s brought any good news lately is the proposed In-N-Out Burger on Del Monte, which is only moving forward because no developers bid on the city’s original vision of a hotel.
“This very prolonged, deep recession has hurt us more than everything else,” Corpuz says. “It’s hurt every project we’ve had, because the developers haven’t been able to make them pencil.”
Making development even less attractive is a recent surge of violence in Seaside, some of it gang-related, after years of respite. The city has seen seven shootings in the last six months, including one homicide, triggering unwelcome memories of the city’s high-crime days after Fort Ord’s closure in the ’90s.
Even though some officials suggest it’s a blip, the shootings have provided ammunition to Cercone supporters who link the violence with his suspension.
“A lot of the criminal public involved in gangs or drugs are seizing this opportunity to go out and commit crime,” Borges says, “knowing Seaside PD is in a terrible time right now.”
“This country ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
Unfortunately, the SSPD-City Hall conundrum has pitted likable public servants against one another. Although Cercone’s a reputed piano bar crooner and Willis plucks the ukulele, it seems unlikely the two will ever collaborate on the chief’s famed rendition of “My Way.”
The SSPD interims will soon be out of the picture anyway. CalPERS allows Willis and MacQuarrie up to 960 hours, or about six months, to work in Seaside; an additional six months may be granted in case of an emergency. Willis is now entering his fourth month on the job.
The more important question is how Corpuz and Cercone will sort out their scuffle. Conflicts between police chiefs and city managers are fairly common; POST even offers a seminar “designed to improve communications and team concept between the city manager and chiefs of police.” But now that the dirt has flown in public, it’s hard to imagine Cercone returning to work under Corpuz.
Although Cercone says he’s committed to continuing, he may be looking for an out: He was a finalist for Stockton’s chief vacancy last June.
The showdown puts Seaside’s stressed-out cops in the uncomfortable position of picking a side to rally to, while worrying that the wrong choice could cost them their jobs.
It’s a good bet lawsuits will be involved.
The city attorney, Don Freeman, assigned each legal issue to outside lawyers. Rick Bolanos of S.F. firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore is handling the police personnel issues; Richard Harray of Monterey’s Kennedy, Archer & Harray is representing the city on Cercone’s grievance against Corpuz; Richard Schmidt is investigating Lumpkin’s complaint against Cercone; and S.F. attorney Rick Bañuelos is protecting the city on Alcaraz.
A public records request reveals the city has already spent almost $128,000 on investigations involving Alcaraz, Lumpkin, Pasquarosa, Kimball, Cercone and Corpuz. But the cost of liability could be much steeper.
“The moneys being spent on people on leave and attorneys is regrettable, but we don’t have a choice,” Rubio says. “While they are a drain on the budget, the alternative is much worse.”
Cercone is an at-will employee, which means Corpuz could fire him for a reason as simple as their clashing styles. But Cercone’s retention of local employment lawyer Michael Stamp signals he’s ready to play hardball if he gets a pink slip. That could manifest as either a quiet settlement or a courtroom circus.
The moment of truth might not be far off: “I’m hopeful that we will have the personnel issues and investigations done by the end of the year, and then it’s time for action,” Corpuz says.
Although he won’t elaborate, Corpuz may be building a case for firing Cercone – unless the City Council cans him first.
“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”
Mayor Rubio senses that despite what appears to be a surge of support for the popular police chief, most Seasiders respect the due process of personnel investigations. He’s betting his own November 2010 reelection bid on it.
Regardless of who keeps his job, the SSPD v. City Hall showdown is distracting Seaside from its priorities.
The bigger goal, Rubio says, is to reinvigorate the city’s economy so Seaside can move forward with developments that will eventually fund expansions of all departments – particularly police and fire.
“Times are difficult and people are still uncertain about the economy, but we will come out of this recession,” he says. “It would be better if we do it together.”
Despite the crime uptick and development slowdown, there’s reason for hope. In the wake of a hard-hitting foreclosure crisis, Seaside’s demographic is shifting. New ventures are springing up alongside rooted small-biz staples. Do-goodery is on the rise as nonprofits take advantage of Seaside’s comparatively low rents. The Monterey County Health Department is looking to build a new clinic on Broadway, while volunteers have transformed a former drug hookup on Luxton Street into a lovingly landscaped neighborhood park.
The SSPD-City Hall shakedown could affect the city’s evolution in many ways. One vision paints cops battling city management while development proceeds unchecked. Seaside could become a slum of chain stores, its character sapped by the exodus of small businesses and rising violence while wealth concentrates on the city’s perimeters. More amicable relations between the police department and City Hall, on the other hand, could foretell better policing, less crime and more focused city planning.
A positive outcome depends on a city administration that operates outside of a crisis mentality, a police department that learns to do more with less, and a public that bands together to accomplish what its leaders can’t.