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City, Police Union Remain Divided by Vaccine Policy

First published in the Oct. 7 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.

The city of San Marino and the local police union are still involved in what have been portrayed as contentious negotiations regarding a mandatory employee vaccination policy that was announced in early September and could result in the termination of up to 11 of the municipality’s 24 officers.
Over the weekend, the San Marino Police Officers’ Association mailed postcards to all city addresses stating its case against the policy, which does not allow employees to use frequent testing for COVID-19 as an alternative.

“Federal and state workers are granted weekly testing, but the city of San Marino refuses,” says the postcard, an electronic version of which was sent to the Tribune by SMPD Sgt. Naved Qureshi, a 20-year law enforcement veteran who is the union president. “The officers are not anti-vaccine but just want an alternative to keep these devoted officers employed.” Qureshi confirmed that just 13 of the department’s 24 officers have received the vaccine to date, himself included. 
But the city is standing its ground on the matter. City Manager Marcella Marlowe said the municipality does not consider the testing option to be a viable alternative.
“Testing is not effective in protecting against the transmission of COVID-19,” she said. “All available information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state and county public health departments have made it abundantly clear that vaccination is the most effective tool to combat the individual and community effects of COVID. Testing does not protect against the transmission of the virus, does not eliminate the need for employees to quarantine if they are exposed, and does not protect anyone from enhanced ‘opportunities’ for exposure. 
“Positive tests mean contact tracing both inside and outside of our organization and stronger possibilities of quarantine, leading to higher costs to backfill temporary vacancies or a reduction in services.”
Marlowe has the support of all five members of the San Marino City Council, each of whom was polled on the matter and stated that they have been fully vaccinated.
“The City Council and the city manager are in agreement with our approach to combating COVID in our community,” said Mayor Ken Ude in an email. “As is standard in the bargaining process with labor unions, the City Council gave direction to the city’s negotiating team to pursue the ‘meet and confer’ process with the unions, which is ongoing. We are waiting to see the outcome from the conclusion of that process.”
Councilwoman Gretchen Shepherd Romey agreed.
“It is my honor to serve on City Council, and my most important responsibility is to protect public health and safety,” said Romey. “All city employees, especially our first responders, share that same responsibility. So being fully vaccinated is my duty, as it is theirs, especially as we are in direct contact with community members who include those most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 and who, because of young age or medical conditions, cannot get vaccinated.”
Vice Mayor Susan Jakubowski said she felt “ethically compelled” to be vaccinated, a process she completed in March.
“Especially when you consider the significant number of senior citizens in San Marino, the safety of our first responders and all city employees, and our residents’ support of science,” Jakubowski said.
San Marino Fire Department personnel fall under a separate mandate from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which on Aug. 12 imposed a Sept. 30 deadline to demonstrate proof of receiving a final dose of a COVID vaccine.  
Engineer Nathan Foth, president of the San Marino Firefighters’ Association, confirmed that 16 of its 18 members are fully vaccinated. Foth has been with the SMFD for 15 years and has spent the last decade as union chief. The public health department order allows for medical and religious exemptions and offers what Foth feels is reasonable accommodation. Those members seeking exemption would be required to be tested for COVID once a week and be required to wear a surgical mask or higher classification of respirator.
Foth said both unvaccinated firefighters have filed for an exemption from the vaccine and that one has been placed on administrative leave. At the Tribune’s press time there had not been a final determination regarding the status of the firefighter.
Sam Estrada, San Marino’s urban forester and a 19-year city employee, represents 38 full-time, non-sworn employees as president of the San Marino City Employees’ Association. Estrada said he is “not comfortable” sharing the vaccination status of those in his union.
“Residents ask me every day and I don’t mind sharing that I am vaccinated,” said Estrada.
According to the county website, 85% of San Marino residents are vaccinated with 97% of young people ages 12-17 and citizens 65 or older vaccinated. 
The city and its employee unions are still at the bargaining table with hopes of completing the process by December. Ude, however, is not pleased with the contentious tone of the negotiations.
“The city has always enjoyed positive relations with the police union, even during other difficult times, and I’m disappointed to see these discussions take a very different form this time,” Ude said. “It’s not what we have experienced during my 35 years in this city, and it is not reflective of how we generally accomplish a positive result in San Marino.”
Marlowe said the city continues to bargain “in good faith” with all of its employee unions, including the officers’ association.
“We have been in regular communication with all of the associations for many, many months, so this should not have been a surprise,” Marlowe said. “Negotiations remain ongoing, so no date has been decided by which employees are required to be vaccinated. That’s part of what we are continuing to discuss. We respect our associations and do not want to speak negatively about them; COVID-19 will be over someday, and we will all still need to work together to serve our community.”
Marlowe said she is “dismayed to see the police association resorting to a common union playbook of aggressive scare tactics rather than engaging in direct conversation at the bargaining table.”
“Nonetheless, the city is committed to remaining respectful throughout this process,” Marlowe said.
The feeling might not be mutual. Qureshi said the SMPOA declared a vote of “no confidence” on the city manager that he said was supported by 100% of its membership.
 
POTENTIAL LOSS OF EMPLOYEES
 
The very real possibility exists that Police Chief John Incontro might soon see the day where he must replace almost half his workforce if an agreement cannot be reached at the bargaining table. As chief, Incontro is not associated with the union that represents the SMPD’s rank-and-file employees.
“Let me make it very clear that I do not want to lose a single officer,” Incontro said. “But I have worked on several plans that could be put in place in the event that I have to.”
Marlowe voices a similar sentiment.
“We do not want to lose any employees,” she said. “They are highly valued and have done an incredible job during these unprecedented times. The city has made a policy decision — it is not a personal attack on employees. Although some of our employees may not like the choices available to them, the ball really is in their court.”

Now in his 25th year at The Tribune, Mitch Lehman is Editor and Sports Editor in addition to being the public address announcer for ten sports programs at San Marino High School. Mitch is one of only a handful in the community to receive the ‘Very Special Person Award’ from the San Marino PTA at the annual Founder’s Day ceremony, was acknowledged as a 'Terrific Titan' by the San Marino High School PTSA, was named an Honorary Paul Harris Fellow by the Rotary Club of San Marino and received a National Honorary Merit Badge in Journalism from the Boy Scouts of America. He has received two independent Pulitzer Prize nominations and in the past three years, Mitch has won seven awards and is a thirteen-time finalist in the California News Publishers Association's Better Newspapers Contest. In 2015, the press box at Titan Stadium was re-named 'Lehman's Loft' in his honor. You can reach Mitch at mitchlehman@sanmarinotribune.com.

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