By the Newstreamz editorial board
Responding to our recent story about the San Marcos police and fire fighters associations becoming more deeply involved in the city’s electoral politics, a number of readers have raised interesting and important concerns about conflicts of interest. We agree with such worries, though we don’t agree that public safety employees would refuse service to people who support their political opponents.
Our worry is more abstract. We are unhappy that public safety employees, particularly the police, should descend to politics at all. Public safety should not be co-opted by politics, and the police should be above politics. The need for competent and reliable public safety forces is an item on which all public-spirited individuals can agree. If government has any function at all, it is to provide for public safety. When the city’s public safety employees say they need to organize as a means of ensuring that the city government takes heed of public safety, they are saying, in effect, that the city government is inept. When the city government is insufficiently attentive to public safety, the correct response is not to reflexively vote for the police union’s candidates. The correct response is to change the city council for neglecting Job One. Thus, the union’s true purpose lies elsewhere.
Did we just say “union?” That was intentional, because the police and fire fighters associations are unions. Undoubtedly, somewhere in the legal codes, some distinction says such associations aren’t unions, but it’s a distinction with little difference, because they are unions that exist for the purpose of collectively bargaining pay, benefits and working conditions for their members. And their operations, then, are not geared toward enhancing public safety, but towards enhancing the pay, benefits and working conditions of city employees who provide public safety. The public safety unions are negotiating during meet and confer for increases in vacation, compensation for performing union work and other “soft pay” issues, but not for adding a single officer, detective or emergency staff member.
We do not disparage unions, nor do we believe the men and women who lay their lives on the line for us should be consigned to Spartan lives matching the selflessness of their public deeds. We support the concept of public safety employees collectively bargaining with the city. We take pause, however, when collectively bargaining public safety employees mix their activities with partisan politics, creating circumstances rife with conflicts of interest.
Imagine a city, call it “River City,” in which the police and fire fighters are in the process of collectively bargaining with the city right in the middle of a city council election that could seat a new voting majority. Naturally, the powers behind the sitting council majority wish to have their candidates elected so as to preserve their majority and continue their policies. And, as it happens, the police and fire fighters bargaining with the city make a practice of endorsing candidates in council elections, going so far as to give their preferred candidates money, send out campaign literature on their behalf, and even walk blocks and knock on doors for the candidates they support.
Do we see here the potential for bargaining that goes well beyond pay, benefits and working conditions for public safety employees? And when the police and fire fighters can’t tell us specifically why they would throw their money, muscle and institutional credibility behind the candidates most congenial to the sitting powers on the council, then what are we to think?
Being so indispensible — after all, they are the very embodiment of law and safety in any city — the police and fire fighters stand to wield enormous influence over voters who want to make the right call but don’t regularly follow city politics. How much is that leverage worth to politicians who are going to decide whether to approve the next contract for police and fire fighter vacation and retirement benefits?
As it happens, the San Marcos City Council is to consider approving a new contract with the police force at Monday afternoon’s meeting. An eyebrow might be raised on considering that the council action will take place the day before a city council election in which the police and fire fighters unions have actively supported the candidates who are friendliest to the sitting council majority.
Is it coincidental that the police have worked up a pretty good deal in these hard economic times during which violent crime is famously increasing in San Marcos? While other city employees have been asked to forego annual cost of living increases, the police will receive annual increases of about 4.5 percent in each of the next three years under the pending agreement.
It’s not because San Marcos police are paid poorly. A beginning police officer in San Marcos already earns $44,011. By comparison, an entry level officer in much larger Fort Worth makes $48,838, the entry salary in larger College Station is $37,960, and an academy graduate in larger Waco starts at $42,754. Hays County deputies start at $45,485 and starting cops in New Braunfels earn $45,080.
We understand that police and fire fighters all over Texas and the United States have taken to endorsing local candidates in a practice that has become common, if not routine. But such regularity does not make it a constructive development for democracy or good government.
The police and fire fighters are pursuing their own interests. We don’t criticize them for that, though we do criticize them for wrapping their interests in the American flag and acting as though there were little other hope that government would address public safety.
But the real problem goes deeper. When public safety mixes with politics, when anything mixes with politics, questions such as we’ve raised are bound to arise, because they are political questions. The real problem is that when police and fire fighters enter the business of endorsing city council candidates, it creates conflicts of interest for the city council’s political animals and, by extension, the city staff. We would be happier if the police and fire fighters would stay above the political fray, so our elected representation can’t get too political with public safety.Email | Print