The San Mateo City Council unanimously adopted a resolution declaring Black lives matter and expressed interest in commissioning a potentially permanent mural in the city.
Those decisions Monday, July 20, followed an hourslong discussion about the San Mateo Police Department’s budget and policies, with roughly half of the more than 100 speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting calling to defund police while the other half expressed enthusiastic support for them.
The Black Lives Matter mural was proposed by resident Joshua Wright, who, during the meeting, specifically recommended it be permanent, created by local Black artists and placed in a high-traffic area. A staff report published before the meeting proposed a street mural with the words Black Lives Matter on B Street between Second and Third avenues.
Councilmembers expressed support for a Black Lives Matter mural in the city, but tasked the Arts Commission with coming up with a design and location for it.
“I think our Arts Commission is the perfect arena to vet out some of these ideas,” said Deputy Mayor Eric Rodriguez. “This is what they do, it’s their whole purpose. There’re architects there and people much more artistically inclined than we are here.”
Rodriguez said he has reservations about the street mural idea because “it’s quasi permanent and it seemed like we’re more checking a box and reacting instead of really thinking this through and coming up with something that means a lot more to our community.”
Councilwoman Amourence Lee proposed having Black leaders help guide the mural effort and Councilman Rick Bonilla said the mural should be “art that stays for good.”
The resolution in support of Black Lives Matter was introduced by Lee, who described it as a “statement of our values” and not an endorsement of a political movement.
“This is a resolution that is declaring that Black lives matter, it is a statement of our values. It is not an endorsement of a movement or a political organization,” she said, adding that it was co-authored by local Black leaders, the city’s police chief and president of the San Mateo Police Officers’ Association.
“Now, therefore, the City Council of the city of San Mateo, California, thereby declares that Black lives matter and will work to continue to address the root causes of racial inequality in our community by using an anti-racist, racial equity focused lens to assess current and future policies, processes, practices and programs,” the resolution states.
Public comment on the mural and resolution included a variety of perspectives, as did the preceding discussion on the city’s police budget and policies.
Police Chief Ed Barberini began that discussion with a detailed overview of his department’s structure and funding. According to his presentation, the Police Department’s 2021 budget totals $50.2 million or 34% of the general fund, with the vast majority of that cost going to personnel.
The 2021 budget includes $42.9 million for personnel, $6.8 million for operating costs and $482,000 for capital outlay, Barberini said.
He noted the 2021 budget increased by $2.3 million or 4.8% since 2020 and almost entirely because of salary increases in an area that has seen a significant increase in the cost of living.
“We’re relatively flat with the exception of the salary increases,” he said.
Barberini said over the past 25 years, the Police Department’s budget has remained relatively consistent in terms of percent of the general fund, having fluctuated between 31% and 35% of the general fund.
Over that period, sworn police personnel has grown by 8% while the city’s population has grown by 12%, Barberini said.
Barberini also noted cities across the county spend an average of 36% of their general fund on police, which puts San Mateo below average.
Many who spoke during public comment felt the police budget is too high and would like to see some of the funding be redirected to social services.
“If our city is a reflection of our values I’m appalled that 35% of our budget is going to police while only 1% is going to Community Development, a department that works on building affordable housing during this housing crisis,” said Helen T. “I’m urging the members of the council take action to reduce the police budget and reinvest in programs that help increase jobs, affordable housing and education. This will decrease crime.”
Other residents warned of dire consequences if the police budget is reduced.
“When people flee Central America for asylum they come to the United States because of the gang members and the lawlessness in Central America,” said Jose Tercero. “If you defund the police departments you’re going to have drug dealers and gang members open for business in the beautiful United States.”
Councilmembers did not express a desire to reduce the Police Department’s budget and Rodriguez stated “defunding police is not the answer.”
Councilmembers praised the city’s police force, which they described as diverse, but also acknowledged room for improvement. Lee called for increased funding at the regional level for agencies that specialize in mental health crises, for example, and at least two councilmembers want to delve deeper into the department’s policies. Bonilla recommended creating a subcommittee in part for that purpose.
Finally, councilmembers acknowledged a variety of perspectives on policing in the community and pushed back on suggestions that there are just two sides in the debate.
“The notion that you either are on the side of the police, meaning there’s no room for improvement, or are a racist is a false paradigm and I think we need to operate in the reality of complexity that this community exists in,” Lee said.