SAN CLEMENTE : Vote to Be Sought on Keeping Police

A group calling itself Citizens for a Better San Clemente gave formal notice Tuesday that it will seek a ballot initiative to stop the city from closing the Police Department and contracting for police services with the Sheriff's Department.

"If this passes, the people win back their right to vote," said group member Barry Vick, making a pointed reference to the City Council's unilateral decision last month to contract with the Sheriff's Department.

Group spokesman Robb Topolski, a resident and former San Clemente police dispatcher, said the measure, if adopted, would require voter approval of any reductions or significant change in police, fire, lifeguard or medical services.

"It's retroactive to the first of the year and would cancel the City Council's decision to close the Police Department without a public vote," Topolski said of the proposed initiative. "Changes to such fundamental services deserve public scrutiny."

The group is also seeking recall of the four City Council members who voted to contract with the Sheriff's Department. Council members argued that the move could save the financially troubled city about $2 million a year.

A final contract from the Sheriff's Department will be before the council for approval in the spring. Officials expect to make the change in police power on July 1.

Meanwhile, another group of about 25 residents--calling itself San Clemente Taxpayers for Honest, Ethical Government--has formed to fight the recall drive.

"Apparently there are those who wish to place their personal agendas above the welfare of their city," said Sharron Gill, chairwoman of the new group. "The fact that their actions will cost the taxpayers, at the very minimum, $50,000, apparently means very little to them."

The new group will hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bogey's Golf Course Restaurant, 150 E. Avenida Magdalena.

The targets of the recall--Mayor Truman Benedict, Joseph Anderson, Scott Diehl and Candace Haggard--have vowed to fight the recall effort. They defended the council's decision, saying it would save the city money and provide more police patrols. The city is facing a shortfall of $6.35 million in its $20-million operating budget for the coming fiscal year.

To force an initiative election, Citizens for a Better San Clemente would need to collect about 3,600 signatures from registered voters in the community within 180 days. It would take about 5,000 signatures from registered voters within 120 days to force a recall election.

Both the initiative and recall issues could be included on one ballot if the necessary signatures are collected, City Clerk Myrna Erway said. The cost of such an election, which would probably not be held before September, would be at least $50,000, she said.

Formal notice of the recall drive was handed to Benedict, Anderson, Diehl and Haggard two weeks ago.

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