Monday, February 7, 2011

Quan Gambles on Batts

By Robert Gammon
Mon, Feb 7, 2011 at 10:32 AM

Supporters of Anthony Batts are elated that he’s decided to stay on as Oakland’s police chief. And Mayor Jean Quan told reporters that she’s “very happy” and “very relieved” that Batts isn’t leaving. But Quan appears to have taken a big risk by urging Batts to remain as Oakland’s top cop, especially when he has made it clear that his heart isn’t completely in the job.

Although City Council President Larry Reid told the Chron that Batts promised him that he would fulfill the remainder of his three-year contract, the chief refused to repeat that vow to the newspaper. The Chron noted that when asked if he was committed to staying, Batts responded: "As long as we continue to make progress and keep focusing as a team.”

In other words, Batts appears to be saying that he’ll only stay in Oakland under the right circumstances. His backers probably find his position to be understandable, but it’s an attitude that could prove problematic for Quan.

Batts applied for the San Jose police chief’s job, and then when San Jose chose someone else, he contemplated quitting Oakland apparently because he was angry by the city’s decision last year to lay off eighty cops. Quan was able to temporarily placate Batts last week with her decision to hire back ten of the laid-off cops and make police equipment problems a top city priority. But the mayor is going to have a tough time keeping the police chief happy, considering the city’s $40 million projected deficit next year.

The big problem for Quan is that she and the police union remain at loggerheads over compensation concessions. It’s going to be very difficult for her to balance next year’s budget without the police union agreeing to pay at least 9 percent of its pension plan. Other city unions, who agreed in the past two years to more givebacks than the cops’ union did, have said that they won’t okay more concessions unless the cops’ union does it part. The police union is the only union in the city that does not pay at least 9 percent of its pension plan.

In other words, Quan must somehow convince the police union to back off its hard-line stance if she’s going to balance the budget without destroying city services. But Batts’ attitude makes her job exceedingly difficult. The reason is that it deprives the mayor of the leverage needed to get the police union to compromise.

Normally, public agencies use the threat of layoffs to coerce unions into agreeing to givebacks. But the Oakland police union now knows that Quan has effectively surrendered this weapon from her arsenal. After all, if she threatened layoffs and the police union still refused to budge, then Batts would probably leave if she laid off more officers.

Quan apparently believed that the departure of Oakland's popular police chief would have been viewed as a severe blow to her nascent administration. But her decision to ask Batts to stay, coupled with his refusal to commit long-term, is a big win for the police union, and potentially devastating for other city services. The mayor has backed herself into a corner, and made her already very tough job a whole lot tougher.

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