Sunday Commentary: Fire Report Is About Open Government and the Public’s Right To Know


It was surreal being back in court this week, this time as an observer, watching Paul Boylan representing the Woodland Journal and Steve Kaiser representing former Fire Chief Rose Conroy.  The city of Davis wants to release the full fire report, about four and a half years after the most appalling vote in my time of observing the Davis City Council.

The fire chief, for a variety of reasons, wants to stop that from happening.  After watching the proceedings on Wednesday, I believe she will not be successful.  In a way, the push to disclose the full report is the continuation of a quest within a quest.  The broader issue started for me in early 2008, which was to curtail the power of the firefighters’ union, which had pushed the city’s compensation system to the breaking point.

It was only later that year that it became clear that the firefighters’ union president and the fire chief colluded on public policy issues, and it only really became clear to me in the last month or so the role that chief played in pushing for a fourth fire station – to the point at which she actually put the public in jeopardy because she created a staffing and response model designed to show the problems of simultaneous calls, rather than to avoid them.

What we have learned so far is that the problem of the firefighters is not the highly sensational but optically awry image of drunken firefighters sleeping it off in the fire station, though that would be the visual that symbolized the excesses of the union.  No, this is much more basic.

The fire chief promoted the union president to captain over demonstrably more qualified individuals.  Following the report, the rules for promotion were changed to the point where Mr. Weist would not even be eligible to be considered.

The second is a series of favoritism and retaliation within the ranks.

As someone noted to me this week, when the truth comes out about the contents of the fire report, it will be anti-climactic.  We will be disappointed with the content.

But that is actually the point.

An astute reader noted, following our Thursday coverage of the court hearing, “So, the most serious misconduct revealed so far (thanks to the Vanguard’s digging) has been the actions of Mayor Ruth Asmundson, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza leading up to and including that fateful night in December, 2008.”

He adds, “Chief Conway likely knows better than anyone what’s about to be revealed regarding the redacted sections. Why she wants to dramatically increase the public’s interest with an attention-drawing lawsuit is most curious.”

“It seems like an oddly lose-lose legal move. What would be worse for her reputation, reading the rest of the report and knowing that she fought release? Or, if her suit is successful, not seeing the facts and speculating on what horrible stuff she was successful at covering up?”

This is my thinking exactly.

So, let me lay the cards on the table here, because the last thing I want to see happen is that there be a big build up to the report being released, only to find out that there is not much there.

The report is the point.  The cover up is worse than the crime.  Over the years, I have been convinced that the actual crime of Watergate was a good deal worse than was depicted in the 1980s when I was first learning about it as a school boy.

At the same time, I believe that Watergate is probably one of the less horrific things that the Nixon administration did and that finally, without the cover up, the Watergate break in would have been a localized phenomenon that ensnared low-level campaign operatives, rather than going to the very top.

To me, while I am convinced that there was real retaliation and a hostile work environment, that the city failed to act to protect its employees before, during, and most notably after the report, the worst crime here is not whatever happened at the fire station but what happened in city hall in plain view of all of us.

When Don Saylor, Ruth Asmundson and Stephen Souza voted 3-2 to refuse to read the full report themselves, it was the height of arrogance of power.  They brazenly flaunted open government in the face of citizens, under the guise of a personnel matter.  They shirked their public responsibility that night.  That they did so openly and transparently and without really being called to task, to me is the height of the audacity of the council majority.

The chief should just let this out in the open.  She should let it drop.  Look, if Annette Spicuzza could get a temporary job as police chief following the pepper-spray incident, I see no reason that the release of the report would preclude Conroy from getting another job as an interim chief, or preclude her from any other endeavor.

There is some audacity here, as the chief is making at least $122,000 for her pension, and her husband is also a retired firefighter with a sizable pension.  For a time, she served on the board of the statewide firefighters’ union.  This is not a person that should be crying poverty here.

She can argue that she was promised confidentiality.  There may be a reasonable claim there, but can the city promise to improperly withhold information from the public under the guise of promises of confidentiality?  Can the promise of confidentiality be a shield to protect the former chief from her own wrongdoing?

By fighting, it will make her appear to have something to hide even if she does not.

She can claim that she has never had a chance to defend herself or to tell her side of the story.  She can do that now.  She can release it with the agreement that it include her own response to the report.  She can call a press conference.

I will even offer her space on the Vanguard if she wants it.

You see, to me this is about open government, it is about transparency, and it is about accountability.  The government should not and cannot be allowed to cover up its own wrongdoing.  We must have the public light of scrutiny on actions that involve the public trust.

So to me, that 3-2 vote is why I have fought so hard to get to this point.  The public has the right to know – even if in the end, there is nothing that public did not know already.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Growth Izzue

    [quote]You see to me this is about open government, it is about transparency, and it is about accountability. The government should not and cannot be allowed to cover up for its own wrongdoing. We must have the public light of scrutiny on actions that involve the public trust.[/quote]

    I would hope that you feel the same way about the Obama Administration and would accordingly ask the same of them.

  2. medwoman

    [quote]I would hope that you feel the same way about the Obama Administration and would accordingly ask the same of them.[/quote]

    Relevance to the current topic would be ?

  3. David M. Greenwald

    GI: take a look at this article that I think you missed last week, View of Obama ([url][/url])

    You can raise these issues there if you’d like and I’ll respond as needed.

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