Suspicious Minds in Albany 

The vote over electing teh city's police chief is the latest tussle between council and police

Back when automobiles first started menacing pedestrians, the town of Albany created an elected police chief and upgraded his primary transportation from horse to motorcycle to deal with the growing threat. "He would escort kids across the street and would walk up and down the street -- that was his job," said Gerome Blank, who was one of those kids back in 1927.

Some things have not changed in 75 years. Commuters still race through the one-mile radius town at breakneck speed. The police force, however, has grown from Chief John Glavinovich and his motorcycle -- which he promptly totaled chasing speeders -- to a department of more than 35 officers and staff. But some residents want to bring the department into this century by making the chief's an appointed position. Their proposal to end the election of police chiefs, Measure C, is the only item on the city's Nov. 6 ballot.

It's the latest outbreak of the long wrestling match between the City Council and police over control of the department, one of only two in the state with an elected chief. Although they are playing nice now, the council and chief have a long history of battling over control and budgetary issues, starting with Glavinovich, who campaigned in 1938 against liquor and gambling interests. Albany has had its share of colorful chiefs who ran the department like a fiefdom, most notably James Simmons, who threw his weight around between 1974 and 1986 by doing things such as threatening not to provide police protection for the Solano Stroll, the city's largest annual event.

Four previous attempts to change the process for selecting the chief have failed. In an attempt to not personalize this latest effort, Measure C supporters waited to put their measure on the ballot until Larry Murdo, Albany's police chief since 1986, announced his retirement. But the campaign became complicated this summer after Murdo reversed his decision to retire early, and announced that he would run again in 2002, citing a need to remain employed following losses in the stock market.

Supporters of Measure C have been careful not to criticize Murdo, saying that what troubles them is the selection process, not the person presently occupying the seat. "We might have a qualified man in position right now," said former mayor Robert Nichols. "But who is going to be the next police chief and what will their qualifications be and how will we know if they're doing a good job and if they're not, what will we do about it?"

Measure C proponents also point to the past and -- alluding to Simmons without naming him -- say that at least one chief was less than vigilant about letting racial and sexual discrimination into the department, resulting in costly legal expenses. Murdo said those incidents occurred before the council implemented stricter requirements for the job in 1995. Now chiefs must possess a bachelor's degree, at least five years of supervisory experience, and a Peace Officers Standard and Training certificate.

The Albany Peace Officers' Association and other opponents of the reform effort say Measure C is not about modernization at all. "Measure C is about power," said former mayor Robert Good at a recent League of Women Voters debate. "The question is, should this authority be given to City Hall or should it be kept with the people. A lot of us people think it should stay with the people."

As the election approaches, this dialogue became increasingly heated. In early October, a Yes on Measure C newsletter delivered to Albany homes declared that the proposal represented "good government" and listed over 100 names of local residents who support the measure. Then last week, fliers started appearing on Albany car windshields denouncing the City Council and "their band of control crazies" for attempting to break up the city's force and merge it into the Berkeley Police Department. Councilmember Mario DiPrisco said the flier's claims were "half truths, lies, and exaggerations."

This much is certain, said Sgt. Robert Christianson, president of the Peace Officers' Association: Voters won't know who they are getting with an appointed chief. "The council will certainly know because he'll be tailored to their agenda," he said.

Good argues that appointed officials, once in power, are more difficult to remove than elected ones. While he was on the council, he said, the city had to buy out department heads' contracts in order to get rid of them. "It's much easier to get rid of an elected police chief," he said.

But measure supporters say that only two contested elections in nearly 50 years means the process is not working. "We don't have a selection," Nichols said. "We have a default election every four years." Good countered that uncontested elections are proof that the police chief is running things smoothly. "With candidates, it's normal not to be replaced if you're doing a good job," he said.

Measure C supporters also argue that the requirement that candidates live in Albany limits the talent pool to people already in the department. "Who is going to move to town on the off-chance they'll win an election?" said Larry Fitzsimmons, a local computer programmer. "You buy a $250,000 house and maybe have a job when you're done." Similarly, they argue, qualified insiders are loath to challenge their current boss. "Once a chief of police gets in, he's in for life because nobody wants to get on his list and oppose him," said Blank, who has been mayor three times.

Christianson said all but one officer on the force opposes the idea of an appointed chief. "When you go appointed, you have a revolving door," said Lt. William Palmini, who has worked under appointed chiefs elsewhere. "It's a training ground for people who want to be chief with no direct connection to the community."

It is this connection to the community that the department prides itself on. "If you fall in bed at night, we come and put you back in bed," Murdo said. "We do things other people don't do." On Christmas Day, for instance, Murdo said he sends officers with children home and personally works the streets all day long, greeting people and giving out helmets to kids on bikes.

This connection with the community could be harmed if Measure C passes and City Hall gets control of the force, Christianson warned. "They might want to farm out dispatch to county, or they may want the county to take over police services," he said.

Murdo, who was raised in Albany and started out as a patrol officer on the force 28 years ago, has not taken a position on the measure. "It depends on where you fall," he said. "There's a cadre of individuals who believe the City Council should be setting all the priorities. ... There is also a cadre of individuals with a different philosophy, and they believe that an autonomous individual who reports directly to the electorate is in the best interest."

Robert Zweben, the longtime city attorney who has locked horns with the department over the years, particularly during the Simmons era, said people who think an elected police chief is accountable to the public are dreaming. "The citizens have no power in this system," said Zweben, who also is elected.

Giving the chief autonomy has allowed Murdo to create some impressive programs, concede many residents, including even some Measure C supporters. During an interview, Murdo pointed to a framed letter from Bill Clinton in the lobby of the police department. "Not every chief has one of these," he said. Clinton singled him out, Murdo said, after learning about the musical teen driver program he started eleven years ago.

The mostly state-funded Chief Operator Teen Driver Program stars two of Murdo's officers, Sgt. Art Clemons and Palmini, an Elvis impersonator who hams it up for traffic safety with songs like "Buckle up your baby," and "Designated Driver Blues." Occasionally, Murdo joins the band on bass. The duo has been all over the US and even to Canada spreading the message. "I was told there's no way I would have been able to push that program through had I been appointed," Murdo said. "It was too risky."

But supporters of an appointed chief have this program in mind when they say citizens could have a greater role setting priorities for the $3.7 million department. Nichols asked which is more important: teaching out-of-towners safe driving habits, or protecting local children through enhanced traffic enforcement. Having an appointed chief also would let the city clamp down on overtime, they argue, which, for the last five years, has averaged about $40,000. Christianson said the department has been managing with one unfilled position. And annual overtime for the fire department, which is overseen by the council, was closer to $60,000 during the same period.

Murdo's freedom also has led to speculation about his job performance. The chief brushed aside allegations that he is rarely in the office and actually lives 180 miles away in Paradise, near Chico. "Let's get this story straight," he said. "I have a residence in Paradise. I will be retiring to Paradise. My residence address is in Albany."

Councilmember DiPrisco said he thinks Chief Murdo has done a commendable job as chief for the last sixteen years, but added that "the police chief position is a full-time position and I believe in the principle of elected oversight."

Murdo concedes that conferences or teaching engagements often take him out of the office. But he said he always gets the job done. "Just because I'm not in this office that moment, every day the voice mail is checked a minimum of three times and I come back and I clear the desk before I leave at night."

If Measure C passes, Murdo said he would apply for the appointed position, but only for one year. City officials said all things being equal, he would probably be the first appointed chief. "If he expressed a desire to be appointed chief, he would be on the top of the list of candidates," DiPrisco said.

Regardless of what happens, many say Murdo is the last of the hometown police chiefs. Whether appointed or elected, even qualified departmental insiders will have to move to Albany to serve as chief. "The fact is that there is no officer like Larry Murdo who grew up in this community and, at the time he ran, lived in this community," Zweben said. "It's definitely the end of an era."

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