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Is the sheriff a comin'?

Morro Bay could consider contracting police services out to the county sheriff, maybe

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In common fashion, it didn't take much for Morro Bay citizens to peer into the most recent controversial proposal to come out of City Hall and start asking questions.

This time, it involves an early proposal to consider outsourcing the city's law enforcement services to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, a discussion that accelerated after the departure of the Morro Bay Police Department's two top officers. On July 18, City Manager David Buckingham posted a memo on the city's website saying the City Council will be asked if they want staff to begin exploring the option.

That memo followed a July 12 council meeting where a resident who heard that the city was having preliminary discussions on the matter expressed concern with the idea. Mayor Jamie Irons and the council responded by kicking off the public conversation.

Now a grassroots effort is circulating petitions and gathering the community to tell the council not to even think about considering outsourcing the city's law enforcement duties"showing community sentiment that residents want their police to stay local.

Ken Vesterfelt, a volunteer with the police department, said that the response has taken on a life of its own. Volunteers are hustling for petition signatures in front of the grocery store and elsewhere, and Vesterfelt estimates that there could already be as many as 1,000 to 1,500 signatures.

Most people who were asked have signed, he said, with "very, very few refusals," including a few from people who wanted more information before signing.

Vesterfelt said his concerns are twofold. First, he's skeptical that the arrangement would bring significant financial savings without cutting services. The sheriff's deputies would be paid significantly more than Morro Bay officers, among the lowest paid of any city police in the county. But more importantly, Vesterfelt said it's imperative that the city's discussions are open to and inclusive of the public.

He told New Times that if it wasn't for him finding out about this issue, the city might not have made the discussion public.

Irons said that discussion is the first step, one that will occur before the council even considers the actual contract, should they make it that far.

"It's not a question of, 'Hey do we want to contract out with the Sheriff?" Irons told New Times. "The question is do we want to have that discussion with the community?"

Irons held a listening session with residents on July 26. The City Council is tentatively scheduled to consider pursuing a study on Aug. 9.

The idea came up among recommendations made in a May 2015 financial and organizational study on the city by the government-consulting firm Management Partners.

The study found the department to be "leanly staffed" with "limited clerical support," where the chief and officers spent a lot of time on office and clerical work. The report recommended the department reduce those burdens by investing in voice-recognition software to assist with reports, and to add a half-time employee to provide clerical support.

The report also found that a lot of money was spent recruiting and training officers in response to high turnover.

"It has been suggested that if the officers were paid more, they would stay, and the increased salary cost would be covered by reduced costs of training and recruitments," the report reads.

As for finding a way to tighten department costs, the report recommended against decreasing staff time because the department was already operating on only two sworn officers per shift.

"Based on an analysis by the Police Department, the only reasonable way to significantly decrease police costs would require contracting the entire service to the county sheriff with considerable reduction in service," the report said.

All costs considered, the report made two recommendations: Develop a plan that addresses causes and cost of turnover and address succession planning to prepare for retirements or resignations, and explore the costs of contracting with the Sheriff's Department.

The City Council had planned to discuss the recommendations in 2017. Irons said that timing was in part intended to bring the matter up in a non-election year, with a more settled in council, so the issue wouldn't become politicized by the election.

But the departure of Chief Amy Christey"who succeeded former Chief Tim Olivas in 2012 when he became the county's undersheriff"and Cmdr. Bryan Millard has the city looking to consider their options sooner rather than later.

While the city isn't yet contemplating such a contract, Buckingham's memo indicated the city will have strict parameters if they do.

Those include only looking at a level of service that must be equal to or better than what's currently provided by the police department. In addition, the city won't consider a reduction of sworn officers on shift or a reduction in response times, and services must be based at the existing police department headquarters.

The city would also require that the Sheriff's Department be "committed to sustaining a 'Morro Bay' police force" consisting of semi-permanent Morro Bay-based officers. Also, should such a contract be pursued, "the 'Morro Bay' unit will look and feel, as much as is possible, to be a Morro Bay Police Department," including the use of Morro Bay police vehicles and other Morro Bay-specific insignias.

Staff Writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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