San Clemente to Disband Police Force : Law enforcement: City Council decision to contract for services with the sheriff upsets many at meeting, who want the issue put to a public vote.

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Despite heavy opposition from some residents, the City Council on Wednesday night voted to disband the city’s 65-year-old Police Department and contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The move could save the city about $4 million over the next two years.

At a meeting attended by more than 150 residents, the council voted 4 to 1 in favor of contracting with the county. The decision came after months of emotional debate in this financially troubled city of 43,000 regarding the fate of the department.

Council member Thomas Lorch voted against the plan, saying the issue should be put before voters. But other council members said that it was time to take action and that the cost savings were too much to ignore.


“I have a deep appreciation for (our Police Department’s) long-term service in the community. I have no criticism,” said Mayor Truman Benedict. “But, I think our situation is so desperate that this City Council needs to take action and take action now.”

San Clemente Police Lt. Bill Trudeau, a 20-year department veteran, said moments after the vote: “It’s one of those situations (in which) the council has to do the best for what they think the community needs. There is nothing wrong with the sheriff’s organization, so you can’t knock it. They’ve always been there when I need them, so hopefully it will be a good transition and things will go on smoothly.”

After the vote, many irate residents threatened to start recall drives and legal action to stop the disbanding.

One resident yelled out after the vote, “What about how we feel?”

Repeatedly during a public hearing before the vote, residents cheered and clapped loudly when speakers urged the council to let the public vote on the issue.

“No system, large or small, should be put in the hands of a few representatives, regardless of how the elected officials have come into office,” Darlene Novak said.

Those in favor of retaining the Police Department said it would be a tragedy to lose its tradition and service.


“I support our local police, who serve us so well,” Marjorie Lusk said. “If the county has an estimated $93-million shortfall, how can they give us more for less? I feel everyone who believes the county can give San Clemente more services for less will also believe the sun shines at night in San Clemente.”

Supporters of the disbanding said tough economic times require tough decisions.

“I wish things could stay the way they are,” Byron Marshall said. “But when times are tough, and times are tough right now for individuals and cities, we can’t always have the things we want.”

Proposed tax increases and other budget cuts outlined in a 300-page long-term financial plan also dominated the debate Wednesday as the council tried to deal with an estimated $6.35-million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.

If major budget cuts are not made and the recession continues, city officials predict deficits of $1.8 million to $3 million in each of the next five years.

At the council’s request in the fall, the Sheriff’s Department proposed to take over law enforcement duties in San Clemente for $6.3 million for each of the first two years, a savings of about $2 million annually.

A final contract will be brought before the council for approval at its next meeting on March 3.


City officials told the sheriff that the plan would have to meet three key conditions:

* There must be actual savings.

* Services must remain the same or be increased.

* The Sheriff’s Department must ensure “fair and equitable” treatment of current police employees.

Under the sheriff’s proposal, the number of street patrol officers will increase by as much as 75% at night and 35% during the day. The Sheriff’s Department also will carry on the same community services, including the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and DARE.

Sheriff’s officials have also promised to hire all sworn officers and almost all civilian employees in the 75-member Police Department. About eight full-time civilian employees would not be needed by the sheriff, but officials vowed to find comparable positions in the city or county for those employees.