Council President Georgette Gómez speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Council President Georgette Gómez speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Mayor Kevin Faulconer would have vetoed any cut to the San Diego Police Department budget, and Council President Georgette Gómez did not have the votes to override it, she said in an interview Thursday.

The City Council Monday rebuffed demands from hundreds of activists to slash SDPD’s budget by $100 million in response to police brutality protests that have broken out across the country. The Council instead approved the mayor’s proposal to increase SDPD’s budget by $27 million.

Gómez said she made a last-minute attempt to cut SDPD’s budget, just before she and the  rest of the Council came under relentless criticism from the movement to defund police, which emerged in the last two weeks and has managed to upend City Hall politics and remake the city’s long-running debate over criminal justice reform just as quickly.

The defunding effort fell apart, she said, because she didn’t have enough time to put a new plan together and she did not have the six votes needed to overcome the mayor’s veto, despite the Council’s veto-proof Democratic supermajority.

Gómez and Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, she said, spent the weekend looking for a way to cut police spending over the next year.

“We couldn’t get there,” she said. “It’s not because we didn’t try, we just couldn’t get there. There wasn’t a straight path to say, ‘We’re going to remove $10 million, and it’s going to come from this,’ because we needed more time.”

She said identifying potential cuts on short notice was especially difficult because anything they offered could have been subject to labor negotiations – a lengthy process called meet and confer – if it affected the daily work of union-represented officers. She highlighted banning the use of rubber bullets as something that might have been subject to the meet-and-confer process, even if it could have created budget savings.

But Gómez said she also ran into a basic political problem, too.

“Not all my Council colleagues believe that we should do that,” she said, of decreasing SDPD spending.

The city’s budget process calls on the mayor to release a detailed budget proposal. The City Council can make whatever changes it wants, but those are subject to a line-item veto from the mayor. It requires six votes from the nine-member Council to override that veto.

“The mayor expressed that if we were to touch the budget on (the police department), he would have vetoed our budget,” Gómez said. “I had that conversation with him, and it was pretty clear… so I knew that I needed to have six Council members to override that veto. I didn’t have that.”

A Faulconer spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the veto threat.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry confirmed Thursday that she would not have supported the veto override. She does not support the movement to cut police spending, but said the mayor and Council need to exercise more oversight of the department. Bry alone would be enough to keep the Democrats from reaching six votes.

Councilwoman Jen Campbell “would have followed the lead of the Council president,” wrote Campbell spokesman Jordan Beane in a text message.

Councilman Chris Ward was the lone vote against the Council’s budget – but he did not cite funding for SDPD in explaining his vote, nor did he propose cutting SDPD spending when he made changes to the Council’s budget during the Monday meeting. He did, however, a week earlier propose reallocating $21 million in coronavirus relief aid from SDPD to a rental relief program. The Council created the rental relief program, though with less funding than Ward originally proposed.

Ansermio Estrada, a Ward spokesman, said he didn’t like dealing with hypotheticals, but cited Ward’s vote to override a mayoral veto on a low-income housing policy last year.

“He would likely have done the same if there was an alternative proposal to reallocate funding to shared priorities,” Estrada said, emphasizing Ward’s attempt to secure $40 million in federal coronavirus aid for the rental relief program.

Representatives for the other Democratic Council officers did not immediately respond to a question on how they would have voted.

None of the Council members, including Gómez, asked for SDPD cuts in their budget priority memos released in January, before the pandemic threw city revenues into disarray. Six months later, the position has emerged as a near litmus test for progressive officials. But on Thursday, Gómez declined to say that cutting spending on SDPD was in and of itself a policy goal.

“I’ve been calling for restructuring since the beginning,” she said. “So I think that really is a conversation that we need to have. Does that lead to less money? That’s a possibility. But we need to look at it.”

The city is set to spend $566 million on police this year, an increase of $27 million over last year. The department’s budget has 21 fewer positions, but spending is increasing anyway, largely because of salary and benefits increases that were previously negotiated with two city unions. There has been a bipartisan Council consensus in recent years that the city needed to increase police compensation to address a crisis recruiting and retaining officers, but a recent audit cast doubt on that premise.

Roughly a third of the city’s general fund has gone to SDPD in recent years, but the increase this year – combined with a decrease in general city revenues from the coronavirus pandemic – has meant SDPD now accounts for nearly 37 percent of general fund spending.

The call to slash $100 million from the department’s budget would have brought total SDPD spending roughly in line with where it was in the 2018 fiscal year.

When she realized she couldn’t craft a way to cut the police budget, or to whip the votes to support a proposal in the first place, Gómez said she instead shifted to making a deal that could avoid a mayoral veto.

The final budget included an Office of Race and Equity – an idea championed by Montgomery to address systemic racism within City Hall, across departments – and a new homeless outreach program that does not involve law enforcement.

“It was a hard one, but it was a decision we needed to make,” she said. “I’m not interested in making political, theoretical spectacles, and saying, ‘Hey, I’m just going to vote no and not really advance the conversation.’ By us advancing the Office of Race and Equity, it’s a significant thing for this particular conversation, that I don’t want people to miss.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not mention that Ward’s original proposal for a rental relief program included a reallocation of $21 million of federal coronavirus aid from SDPD’s budget.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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