Depending on who gets elected in Merced, the City Council could have three members of law enforcement on the seven-person dais, raising questions about their ability to be unbiased.
District 4 Councilmember Kevin Blake, who is seeking re-election, is a Merced County Sheriff’s sergeant, as is District 6 candidate Delray Shelton. Already on the board is District 5 Councilmember Matt Serratto, a Merced County supervising deputy district attorney.
Another candidate, District 2 hopeful Fernando Echevarria, was a police officer on a college campus about 20 years ago, he said. His step-brother is also a police sergeant in Atwater.
As a councilmember, they would be faced with decisions related to first responders, including choices about their pay and equipment. Can a deputy be objective about the pay of a Merced officer who might soon be responding to a scene to back up deputies?
District 4 candidate Karla Seijas, who works at UC Merced, said she’s heard concerns from the public that the council could be too heavily weighed towards law enforcement.
The funding of first responders is pitted against funding for youth programs almost every budget cycle.
“I’m not against law enforcement. I definitely support law enforcement,” Seijas said. “I think the City Council needs to have a diverse perspective.”
Blake said he didn’t see the potential conflict, noting county and city law enforcement are separate agencies. He said he decided to run for re-election independently from Shelton’s decision to do the same.
“My own personal reasons and factors for running again, it had nothing to do with law enforcement,” he said. “I’d like to point out that Delray and I are friends. However, when it comes to making decisions or opinions, we differ greatly on a lot of those.”
The funding of police and firefighters is a large part of Merced’s budget, as it is in most cities. The most recent budget showed $38.5 million spent on those two departments in the $233 million spending plan.
Elected in 2013, Blake said he has a history of remaining objective. “I’ve remained very objective, and very fair,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere where anyone could point to me not being fair, or favoring cops over anybody else.”
In 2015, the Merced City Council began a plan to add funding for five new officers per year for five years. The number of officers had dipped down below 90 in a department that had 111 in 2007.
Seijas, who grew up in the district, said she has a background in working on public policy.
She pointed, for example, at the special marijuana tax, which aims money at police, fire, and parks and recreation. The council gets discretion over 40 percent of that money. The council also has discretion over its general fund of which much of it is spent on first responders.
Even if Blake is impartial to first responders, the officers appear to be partial to him.
The Merced Police Officers Association PAC and Merced City Firefighters PAC have each donated to Blake’s campaign, records show. The Merced police union and the Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association each submitted letters endorsing Blake, according to his campaign Facebook page.
Those endorsements were made without the unions ever talking to Seijas, she said. “I have had not one conversation. They have never ever reached out to me,” she said. “I haven’t had any interaction with them. They didn’t interview me at all.”
The Merced police union has also donated to Shelton, according to campaign records.
A newcomer to politics, Shelton said he has built up respect in the community through his work in the Sheriff’s Office as well as with nonprofits. He, too, brushed off concerns that the council could be too heavily weighted toward law enforcement.
“There’s a lot of things that the council doesn’t have the ability to sway. It’s an administrative thing within the organization,” he said.
Both sergeants noted the council doesn’t make decisions on who gets hired, assigned or promoted. They also agreed Merced needs a “healthy police department” and the best-trained officers possible.
“We walk on eggshells and we’re very careful with this whole civil unrest thing that’s going on,” Shelton said. “That’s important. That’s one thing we agree upon. I think the city police department already does a good job, but I think there’s things we can do to help that.”
The Merced Police Department has had a contentious past couple of years with accusations of police brutality related to the hookah lounge melee between officers and college students in July 2017, and a run-in a man had with police over a disagreement at a convenience store in March.
District 6 candidate John Bliss said he was not concerned the council could be filled up with law enforcement. The teacher is in his first campaign.
“Ideally you’d like to see representation from all walks of life. I think that’s ultimately why you want to have districts,” he said. “I think it just depends on the individual. I think everybody brings a different perspective regardless of their career choice.”
On the council now for two years, Serratto said each person comes to the council with their own experience, adding he believes the experience of working in a ranking position at a government job to be a benefit.
“Ideally you’d want diversity of all different sorts,” he said. “I think the important thing is you should have good people.”