Christine Daniel, Berkeley’s interim city manager
Christine Daniel, Berkeley’s interim city manager

While eyes across the country are focused on Berkeley’s City Hall to see how it responds to Police Chief Michael Meehan’s attempts to get a reporter to change his story, the eyes at City Hall are all focused on Interim City Manager Christine Daniel.

With just a six-month contract that is due to expire in May, the way Daniel handles the Meehan matter may play a large role in whether she gets the job permanently.

Daniel learned on Friday March 9 that Chief Meehan had sent Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to the house of Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley at 12:45 am that day to ask that he change a story on a community meeting about Peter Cukor’s murder. But Daniel did not issue a statement on the matter until around 2:20 pm March 10, hours after the story garnered significant airtime and play in regional publications.

And since then, Daniel has been quiet.

In her statement, Daniel said she “took the situation very seriously,” and that “there was no justification for contacting the reporter in this way.” But she did not then – and has not yet – say she would conduct an investigation into the situation.

Daniel’s silence may be because she considers Chief Meehan’s actions to be a personnel matter and not subject to public scrutiny. But since she is the police chief’s boss and has the power to hire, fire, or reprimand him, her relative silence has created a communications vacuum that others are rushing in to fill.

So far, the most “official” comment has come from the 160-member Berkeley Police Association, the union of the rank and file. (It represents virtually everyone but the police chief.) Tim Kaplan, the BPA president, released a statement Sunday March 11 saying that officers are “gravely concerned” about Chief Meehan’s action.

There may be other factors at play as well. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry Lee, quoting sources inside the police department, wrote recently that many officers feel that Meehan is looking after himself rather than his officers. “Many are privately grumbling that the former Seattle police captain is more worried about burnishing his image and spinning the story instead of responding to concerns about whether police staffing was adequate the night Cukor was killed,” wrote Lee.

While police officers are upset about Meehan’s misstep, which has drawn unfavorable attention from around the globe, there are other reasons why they may not be pleased. Meehan has made numerous operational changes in the department, most notably clamping down on overtime, according to City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. He is also helping negotiate a new police contract.

“Someone who is losing thousands of dollars in overtime isn’t going to be happy about it, but taxpayers are,” said Worthington. “There is a whole lot of reform for one department, and reform is controversial.”

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan

The union and city officials, including Meehan, are also in the middle of negotiating a new police contract and many tough issues are on the table, including larger contributions to pensions.

City Councilmembers have been careful in their remarks about whether Chief Meehan’s misstep is significant enough to put his job at jeopardy. The City Charter only gives the council the power to hire and fire the city manager and has penalties for other types of meddling. So it is Daniel’s job to formulate Berkeley’s response, but city council officials are keenly interested in how she approaches the matter.

Still, Chief Meehan seems to have widespread support from the council. Many are impressed that violent crime has dropped and that Berkeley seems to be on the right path.

Susan Wengraf called Meehan “the most responsive chief we have had in 20 years.”

Jesse Arreguìn has expressed his support of the chief:  “It is a hard lesson learned for Chief Meehan, but in light of his sincere apology and self-recognition of his error, it is time to move on and move forward as a community,” Arreguin said in a statement. “Acknowledging that press intimidation –intended or not — is unacceptable and anathema to Berkeley’s values, I offer my continued support of Chief Meehan to serve and protect our city.”

Mayor Tom Bates said at a council meeting on Tuesday that he agrees with the statement Daniel put out that criticizes Meehan’s action but does not call out for any particular action.

City Councilmember Darryl Moore said he would welcome a chance to learn about the facts of the case.

“It would be helpful for the council to hear from the police chief himself what he was thinking,” said Moore.

Daniel was hired as the interim city manager on Nov. 24. Her contract runs for six months. Her annual salary, if she is permanently hired, would be $225,000. Once she is permanent, the City Council also agreed to pay her one year’s severance if she is fired or let go.

Daniel came from Fremont in 2007. Part of the reason she was only offered a six-month contract to start is that she has not been with Berkeley a long time, said Worthington. Phil Kamlarz, the previous city manager, had already been working for Berkeley for decades by the time he got the top job.

Daniel declined a request from Berkeleyside for an interview.

Few comments on Chief Meehan before Council session [03.13.12] 
Questions remain about Berkeley police chief’s actions [03.11.12]
At 12:45 am police chief demands reporter make changes [03.10.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...