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Council Votes to Overturn Prop. J, Hire More Police

Times Staff Writer

To provide funds needed to help hire 107 more police officers next year, the San Diego City Council on Monday waived a voter-approved policy limiting city spending, despite objections from several council members about using a legislative tactic to overturn voters’ wishes.

By a 6-3 vote, the council repealed Proposition J, a charter amendment approved by San Diego voters in 1978 that limited annual budget increases for most city programs to three-fourths of the local inflation rate plus the growth in population. Under Proposition J, the council would have had to reduce city spending in other departments to increase spending on police.

After that decision, the council unanimously approved the 107-officer increase.

In a related action, the council also voted unanimously on Monday to set a controversial goal of increasing the size of the police force over about the next five years until there are two sworn officers for every 1,000 city residents. The ratio of officers to population is now about 1.5 per 1,000, and City Manager Ray Blair has warned the council that the proposed increase could cost the city about $50 million over the next five years.

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The council’s nearly three-hour debate Monday over Proposition J and police manpower levels pitted economic realities against political concerns--notably, some council members’ worries about whether the public might perceive the waiver of the “J limit” as a circumvention of voters’ will.

Although City Atty. John W. Witt had ruled previously that Proposition J was superseded by a statewide measure passed in 1979, the council chose to retain the local limit as a binding policy. That statewide measure was the so-called Gann Initiative, which specified that local governments’ appropriation of tax revenues could not grow faster than the change in the cost of living and population growth.

However, faced Monday with a choice between hiring more police officers and adhering to a policy that the city attorney argued has no legal standing, the council opted to ignore the local budget restriction, which Councilman Bill Cleator argued was “slowly strangling . . . our Police Department and other vital” city services.

In his original budget proposal sent to the council this spring, Blair had recommended an $85.6-million budget for the Police Department that included the hiring of 53 new sworn officers during the fiscal year that begins July 1. However, amid an outcry from some council members, the Police Officers Assn. and the public about the need for additional police manpower, Blair prepared a revised $87.9-million police budget that included 107 new officers, an increase that would raise the number of sworn officers to 1,490.

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However, to obtain the additional $2.3 million needed to hire the extra 54 officers, Blair told the council that it must either cut other city programs or waive the Proposition J limit. Reluctant to trim other city services and programs that already face tight budget constraints, a majority of council members accepted Blair’s advice that the waiver of Proposition J would “permit maximum (budget) flexibility.”

“I believe in fiscal conservatism . . . but not at the expense of people’s lives and public safety,” said Councilman Bill Mitchell.

“Prop. J was the right thing at the time, but it’s not the right thing now,” Cleator added.

Several council members, however, objected to the manner in which the council decided to set aside the Proposition J limit, arguing that the public should have a say in the proposed repeal of a budget restriction that they originally enacted.

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“I support the concept . . . but I’m troubled by taking action that will turn around a decision of the voters,” said Councilman Ed Struiksma, who with council members Gloria McColl and William Jones voted against the measure.

Unless the council put the plan to repeal Proposition J before voters, Jones warned, “we’re open to the charge . . . that this council went around the will of the voters.”

Mayor Roger Hedgecock, however, argued that the 1979 statewide measure represented the council members’ “latest marching orders” from voters.

“If we’re going to follow Gann, you can’t follow J,” Hedgecock said.

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Before approving the across-the-board repeal of Proposition J, the council rejected a proposal by Mitchell to restrict the waiver of the J limit to only public safety services, including the police and fire departments, lifeguards and harbor police. Only Mitchell and McColl supported that plan, which Councilman Dick Murphy contended would “further aggravate . . . budget distortions.”

“We ought to do it all or not at all,” Hedgecock said in agreement.

Police Chief Bill Kolender, who appeared before the council to lobby for the increases, said that the additional 107 sworn officers would be used to increase the number of two-officer patrols from 40 to 71, as well as to staff drug and child abuse details. Traffic and normal patrol beats also will receive some of the new officers, Kolender said. The Police Department’s budget also includes 30.5 new non-sworn police personnel positions.

Although some critics have suggested that the 2.0 figure is an arbitrary one that, even if attained, perhaps would do little to improve the overall quality of police service, Kolender told the council that such an increase would produce reductions in police response time, more thorough investigations of burglaries and other crimes, and reductions in the size of patrol beats.

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