Earlier this year, UC Davis exercised its option to opt out of the shared management of the Davis and UC Davis fire departments. That meant that leadership of the Davis Fire Department would revert back to the city of the Davis, after several years of joint leadership under UC Davis Chief Nathan Trauernicht.
The city quickly moved to hire its own fire chief – Daryl Arbuthnott. This marks the first time since early 2010 that the city has had its own, full-time and permanent chief. In mid-February 2010, long-time Chief Rose Conroy abruptly retired after what was later described as a confrontation with then-City Manager Bill Emlen.
The city quickly named Bill Weisgerber as interim chief and then Scott Kenley, before the 2013 merger between the Davis and UC Davis fire departments under one shared chief.
Daryl Arbuthnott took over in early July and, after a few quiet weeks, an interview with the Davis Enterprise resulted in a large number of messages to the Vanguard.
There are two key areas of concern.
First, the article notes, “(Daryl) Arbuthnott envisioning a number of changes for the Davis Fire Department, a ‘re-branding’ of sorts that includes creating and filling several new positions, updating its aging fire stations and technology, and exploring a return from three- to four-person fire engine crews – a hot-button issue in recent years.”
“My impression is this department has been neglected for several years, and needs some energy put into it again,” he said.
The second part that caught people’s attention came later in the article, “Bobby Weist, president of Davis Professional Firefighters Union 3494, said employees are enthused about Arbuthnott’s leadership.”
“He comes with a lot of credentials, a lot background and experience,” Weist said. “Everywhere that I’ve gone and mentioned his name has come back with a positive response.
“We’re excited to have our identity back, our own department, and we’re excited to see the direction the department’s going to go.”
The Vanguard will be meeting with the new chief later this week, however, my preliminary thoughts are as follows.
There is a reason why the Vanguard has focused so much attention on the fire department in the last decade. There is also a reason why the city has avoided a full-time fire chief in over seven years.
First, there are concerns that stem from the original Grand Jury report from June 2008 where the follow-up report written by Bob Aaronson showed a pattern of favoritism between the union and the fire chief, retaliation against those perceived critical of the union, and favoritism in terms of hiring people loyal to the chief and the union.
Second, we have long documented the untoward influence of the firefighters’ union in city hall, the tactics they used to get favorable policies, which included bundling of contributions and large independent expenditure campaigns. The firefighters’ union had a near lock on city hall from 2002 until it was broken by the 2010 election of Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson.
Third, the result of that favorable political arrangement was a series of very lucrative agreements, starting with the implementation of four on an engine, three percent at 50, and of course a massive pay increase of 36 percent from 2004 to 2009.
The result was that the firefighters earned at the very top of the pay scale in the region and near the top in the state for years, and were one of the few stations that still retained four on an engine despite the relative rarity of actual fires requiring four-person teams to make entry into a building.
After a long period of political struggling, in 2013 the council pushed through a number of reforms. Some of these were unanimous such as boundary drop, the imposition of last, best, and final offer, and changes to the response times.
However, the two most controversial were a 3-2 vote to change to three-man engines and the 3-2 vote to go to shared management. In both cases it was Joe Krovoza, Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee voting in the majority with Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk in opposition.
Already now we have seen shared management go away, despite the existence of at least three votes in its favor, and now the new chief at least wants a discussion of four-man engines, despite the fact that the union still is operating on the 2013 imposed contract and despite the fact that compensation for the Davis firefighters remains near the top of the pay scale regionally.
The fight for these changes was bitter and divisive. The firefighters’ union pushed back with complaints to PERB (Public Employment Relations Board), complaints about unfair bargaining, leafletting, protests, and slowdowns. Ultimately the tactics convinced UC Davis that shared management is more trouble than its worth and, now, we see the new chief pushing for ending three on an engine with the union president singing his praises.
We will see what transpires with all of this. At this time, there would still appear to be three votes against such a move, but this is a rapidly developing situation with the next election less than a year away and two councilmembers expected not to seek another term.
—David M. Greenwald reporting