Mayor calls for police hiring plan

Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer on Tuesday demanded a plan to fill staffing gaps in the city's police department.

Speaking near the beginning of a City Council meeting, Righeimer called for weekly meetings with the police department, saying there is no plan to fill the nagging vacancies.

"We will have that meeting every Thursday in my office at 3 o'clock until we meet the goal of having the people that are budgeted," he said.

The council's preliminary budget for 2013-14 authorizes 132 police officers, but according to numbers provided by the city in July, there were 12 vacancies, for a staff of 120 officers.

Righeimer said he has been asking in private for a plan to fill that gap but hasn't received one.

"The fact of the matter is that the chief does not have a plan in place to hire the people that he needs," the mayor said Wednesday in a followup interview.

Later in the day, Righeimer clarified his comments, saying, "They have a plan. They just need more resources."

That could include hiring bonuses or other incentives for new hires, the mayor said.

"What we're saying is, 'Don't be bashful,'" he said. "Whatever help you need, tell us what you need."

In April, the city announced its intent to hire 10 full-time and 10 reserve officers and brought on a part-time human resource analyst to help the process along.

Police Chief Tom Gazsi said Wednesday that the department has been hiring as quickly as possible since the city authorized it.

"Once I had approval to begin hiring, we've hired a number of qualified candidates," Gazsi said. "We're recruiting and hiring as quickly as possible based on regional trends and our ability to attract qualified candidates."

City CEO Tom Hatch said that authorization came about a year ago, around the time Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that rolled back some pension costs for state workers and employees in general-law cities.

The city delayed hiring officers before then while council members pushed for a second-tier pension plan for new hires at the department.

At the time, Righeimer said, "I will not hire somebody on a pension plan that is unsustainable."

The association representing police officers and the city never came to an agreement on that reduced pension for new hires, but Brown's signature paved the way for reduced costs.

"That was an important structural change that really kick-started the real press for hiring," Hatch said.

Gazsi announced the department's first new hire in years in December that year.

Righeimer said he wants to lay options on the table at his weekly meeting to help that hiring.

"I would say that the council and the police department would welcome additional new efforts to enhance the hiring, and that's what we're looking at right now," Hatch said.

Past and current police employees previously told the Pilot that a tense political atmosphere and cuts from the city council have scared off qualified candidates, stalling hiring.

In February 2011 the City Council voted to reduce the department from 143 sworn officers to 131. The interim police chief, Steve Staveley, resigned later that year, saying the council majority meddled in the department.

From the council dais Tuesday, Righeimer scoffed at the idea that politics could be driving away recruits.

"To sit there and complain that this council is not doing something for officers and the fact of the matter is that it's been budgeted all along is a red herring, and it shouldn't be done," he said.

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