Santa Ana’s Progressive Majority Forces Police Union To Ditch Full-Time Union President Position

By:Matthew Cunningham

Earlier this week, the Santa Ana City Council’s progressive majority has voted to impose a “last, best and final offer” contract on the Santa Ana Police Officers Association that effectively enforces an involuntary restructuring of how the union governs itself.

During its December 20 meeting, the city council approved a contract that ends the position of SAPOA president as a full-time post, known as “full-time release,” effective immediately.

It is highly unusual for a local government to use the negotiation process to forcibly change how one of its bargaining units runs itself, and even more so with the approval of a progressive council majority that prides itself on being pro-union.

City staff did not provide a rationale for seeking the change as part of the bargaining process.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessie Lopez and Councilmembers Johnathan Hernandez, Ben Vazquez and Thai Phan voted to impose the contract. Mayor Valerie Amezcua and Councilmembers Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza opposed the move, and instead voice support for returning to the bargaining table with the SAPOA.

Newly-elected Councilman Ben Vazquez is a left-wing activist who is a teachers union shop steward at Sana Ana Valley High School. Another councilmember, Jessie Lopez, walked the picket line in November with striking OCTA bus maintenance workers.

Both Lopez and Vazquez voted to strip the SAPOA of its full-time president.

Since 1986, the office of SAPOA president has been a full-time position, known as “full-time release”: the union president works at the position full-time while retaining status as a full-time officer, with his or her salary is paid via union members donating back vacation days.

The Santa Ana Police Officers Association is one of hundreds of public employee unions in the state with full-time release presidents. Other police unions with full-time release presidents include the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the Anaheim Police Association, and the Long Beach Police Officers Association.

Both the president and vice president of the Santa Ana Educators Association work at their union posts on a “full-time release” basis.

The contract, which the city put forward as its “last, best and final offer” on September 22, covers a only the 2022 calendar year. Under the contract:

  • Members get a 3% salary increase beginning with the first pay period after council approval
  • The city will cease contributing to retired SAPOA members’ health coverage.
  • Beginning January 1, 2024, the city will take over administering medical, dental and long-term disability insurance benefits for active SAPOA members – a function heretofore performed by the union.
  • The maximum amount of sick leave union members can convert to their retirement health savings accounts is reduced from 1,066 hours to 1,040 hours.

The contract also updates discipline and grievance process language and requires SAPOA members who receive bilingual pay to recertify every three years.

As part of eliminating full-time release for the SAPOA president, the imposed contract gives a floating holiday back to SAPOA represented employees and adds an Association Leave Bank of 1,040 hours and the deduction of 2.5 vacation hours per SAPOA member each calendar year.

Federal and state law require cities to administer health benefits for their full-time employees. Since the 1980s, Santa Ana has basically outsourced that responsibility to the SAPOA president – one of the reasons for the position being “full-time release.”

SAPOA President Gerry Serrano has characterized this arrangement was a money-saver for the city, since city staff would otherwise have to be paid to do it – which is what will now happen beginning in 2024. However

“If the SAPOA president was not administering the benefits program,” says Serrano, “it would have to hire additional employees to do so. Even if you assume those employees were paid mid-level compensation, the total cost to city taxpayers over 30 years would be huge.”

During their discussion of the contract, the progressive councilmembers largely ignored the forced abolition of the SAPOA full-time release president – although Vazquez made explicit mention of the union’s active independent expenditure campaign against his candidacy and alleged the SAPOA negotiators engaged in delaying tactics in hopes of re-electing Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza.

Councilman Phil Bacerra criticize the proposal as heavy-handed.

“We’re trying to dictate the organization of the bargaining unit,” said Bacerra, saying he favored going back to the bargaining table and curing what he called a “poison pill.”

Mayor Valerie Amezcua voiced her own strong opposition to the “last, best and final offer” proposal and agreed with Bacerra’s call to resume negotiations with the union. She stressed her own long-time union loyalties (as a 30-year member of the Orange County Employees Association), noted her general distate for LBFOs and disavowed any consideration of personalities in her considerations

Santa Ana political watchers have attributed the severeity of the imposed contract – and specifically the elimiation of the full-time release SAPOA presidency – as pay-back targeting Serrano, who has been engaged in bitter litigation with the city manager the city attorney and the police chief.

When reached for comment, the SAPOA criticized the council majority to unilaterally reducing by 33% the salary earned by Serrano as union president for the past seven years – the same salary, the union noted, that previous SAPOA presidents have earned and retired on without any reservations or concern from the city.

Amezcua said she didn’t care who the president of the SAPOA, but was opposed to changing how the SAPOA governs itself without the memberships consent.

According to sources, Amezcua had asked to have to LBFO item postponed, but City Manager Kristine Ridge declined her request. The newly-elected mayor alluded to this in her comments.

Amezcua also criticized Chief of Police David Valentin for not being present to answer councilmembers questions on a matter that directly impacts his rank-and-file officers.

It is unclear what options the SAPOA has at this point, outside possibly seeking relief via litigation.


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