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In San Carlos, police chief turns out the lights

By Paul Jones | 1 Nov 2010

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A display case encompasses the San Carlos Police Department's 85 years of history. The department closes today, and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department will take over the city's law enforcement. (Photo: Paul Jones)

The San Carlos Police Department is mostly empty. A display case stands in the reception area, filled with memorabilia from the department’s past. There are gold and silver badges that date to its founding in the 1920s and a bygone-era identification kit depicting a shifty-eyed, Fedora-wearing perp.

A few doors away, Greg Rothaus sits at his desk, the last police chief of a department that is becoming an artifact itself.

San Carlos city officials decided in March to move towards outsourcing police services to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, a cost-savings strategy approved on Sept. 2. The shift, which takes effect today, put Rothaus in charge of managing officers and other staff suddenly worried about losing their jobs.

“It’s hard on the employees,” he said recently. “It’s hard for me to see it be hard on the employees. … It can get very difficult and stressful at times. And it doesn’t happen overnight, so you live this situation for a year.”

His experience managing the cash-strapped department for more than five years had prepared him to handle the crisis. “We were just getting cut, cut, cut, every year I’ve been a police chief here,” he said. “My job has been disassembling this place, piece by piece, and we got to the point where we were the lowest-staffed department on the Peninsula per capita, and one of the lowest paid.”

Chief Greg Rothaus addresses San Carlos residents at a meeting Oct. 14, where he discussed the impending transfer of the city's law enforcement services to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department. (Photo: Paul Jones)

Rothaus’s approach was to emphasize building trust with employees. Even while being kept “out of the loop” as the city negotiated with the sheriff’s department, he maintained communication with his officers and staff, listened to their concerns and reached out to the community. In the end, all of his employees kept their jobs; the San Carlos officers are scheduled to be sworn in as sheriff’s deputies at 11 a.m. Monday.

Officer Ed Estrada said Rothaus’s ability to keep the department together during the uncertainty was no small feat.

“I’ve worked for one sheriff and five other chiefs, and this guy did a real good job of keeping everybody informed,” Estrada said. “There are some administrators that really leave you in the dark.”

Rothaus, by contrast, “put out emails, he left his door open for questions. Anyone could walk in,” Estrada said. “As the information came up, and things were explained, people started feeling like the sheriff was trying to give us a good deal, and they got on board.”

From the perspective of city administrators, it wasn’t only a matter of what Rothaus did that defined his role in the transition; it was also what he didn’t do. Recently appointed Interim City Manager Jeff Maltbie, who took part in negotiations with the sheriff’s office as the city’s administrative services director, said someone in Rothaus’s position could have found ways to oppose the move — and might have had a motive to do so.

“He didn’t know what was going to happen with him until the very, very end,” Maltbie said. “Greg’s got a family and a career, and it can be very difficult to put the city before those things. … Imagine if you were head of the police department. He’s got no desire to be the last chief of police in San Carlos.”

Rothaus acknowledged feeling personally conflicted about his final duty as police chief. But he said those reservations had little to do with his career interests. “We can be parochial in this institution and not want to change,” he said. “It’s hard to do that on a personal level.”

He said his calm approach came from a belief that a more regional policing model is necessary,  a view informed by his experience gutting San Carlos’s law-enforcement programs just to stay afloat.

“When I started here we had a great DARE program, we had a police activities league, we had full-time dedicated traffic officers, we did child safety-seat inspections. After five years of cuts we don’t have that anymore,” he said. “I know in my head why the city is doing this, and as much as it is painful, it is a decision they needed to make …  My sense is this may be necessary.”

After 11 years of budget problems, San Carlos was facing  a moment of truth; with a $3.5 million deficit for fiscal year 2009-10, it could no longer afford its police department. The city’s last effort to raise revenues, the half-cent sales tax increase “Measure U,” had failed at the ballot box in 2009. The only way forward, city officials concluded early this year, was to pursue a major shift in providing services: outsourcing parks, law enforcement, and possibly even fire protection.

For Rothaus, that meant the history of San Carlos’s police department would end under his watch.

He has come to believe that the community will benefit, with nearly $2 million in projected savings to the city per year, the same level of enforcement promised, and the likely restoration of services previously cut to save money. He makes sure also to point out that cities in Southern California have contracted with larger agencies for law enforcement.

“We have an $8 to $9 million budget for policing San Carlos, and now that we’re going to the sheriff we’re cutting that budget by 22 percent, and we’re fielding the same number of people,” he said. “I believe the Sheriff’s Office is a great department that will keep us just as safe.”

Still, after years of service that ultimately led him to lead the law enforcement efforts of an entire city, Rothaus said presiding over the department’s final days felt like ending a tradition.

“It’s hard to be the one who finally turns out the lights and shuts the door,” he said.

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