Earlier this week, a letter from four current officials and a fifth former elected official publicly challenged the city on a City of Davis – UC Davis Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) for shared management services in the fire department. However, that fight, which will play out during the Tuesday, December 3, 2013, city council meeting, is nothing compared to what is going on behind the scenes.
The council met last Tuesday behind closed doors on City Manager Steve Pinkerton’s performance evaluation. At that time there was no reportable action, but the council, two days before Thanksgiving, will have another special closed session meeting on the same topic.
As the Enterprise reports this morning, “Council members have described this evaluation meeting as routine.” Councilmember Lucas Frerichs told the Enterprise it was “a routine evaluation.”
However, the structure of Mr. Pinkerton’s contract suggests otherwise. The terms of the agreement, signed in 2011, “shall automatically renew and extend” for an additional three year term beginning on September 1, 2014, unless “written notice not to renew and extend is given by City to Employee no later than nine (9) months prior to the renewal date (i.e. not later than December 1, 2013).”
After that point, if Mr. Pinkerton “is asked to resign or is terminated as City Manager, then Employee shall be eligible to receive a cash payment equivalent to the sum of Employee’s then-current monthly salary multiplied by nine.”
In short, the council has until December 1, which is during the Thanksgiving holiday, to terminate Mr. Pinkerton’s contract or his contract will automatically renew on September 1, 2014 and any effort to terminate him will trigger nine months of severance pay.
Despite claims by city councilmembers that this is a routine meeting, the Vanguard has learned that there is an active effort to fire Mr. Pinkerton at the behest of the firefighters’ union.
In September, the Vanguard learned from at least ten different sources that the Davis Professional Firefighters Association President Bobby Weist was telling people that he had three votes on council and that Mr. Pinkerton would be fired by December.
At the same time, at least one councilmember told the Vanguard directly that they were approached by a contact on behalf of Mr. Weist, asking them to join with two other councilmembers at that time to terminate the contract of Mr. Pinkerton. That councilmember indicated that they were not inclined to join that effort.
However, despite the claims of Mr. Weist to members of the public, the Vanguard was told by at least three councilmembers that they had no intention of firing Mr. Pinkerton.
Councilmember Brett Lee affirmed his support of City Manager Pinkerton, indicating that he believed that Mr. Pinkerton “is doing a good job” during a “difficult time in the city’s history.”
Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk said in a statement to the Vanguard on Saturday, “In our council-manager form of government in Davis, hiring and evaluating a city manager is one of the most important things we city councilmembers do. Because of this, it’s appropriate that we hear from our constituents – and I have received a number of comments and I welcome them.”
He stated, “I’m not going to comment on the evaluation, nor on the comments I’ve received, due to the confidential, personnel matter this is.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs did not respond to a similar inquiry from the Vanguard, as of press time.
The Vanguard this week learned that, despite assurances publicly by members of council, this is anything but routine. We have learned from sources who opted not to go on the record that there is an active effort to fire the city manager. That said, there are not believed to be the votes to do so.
These sources have stated consistently, since September, that Bobby Weist has been vocally telling people he has the votes to fire Steve Pinkerton.
The city and the firefighters’ union have been doing battle for some time. When the city council this week imposed a contract on DCEA, that left the Davis firefighters as the only hold out. A vote on the last, best, and final offer is due in the firefighters’ case in December.
In addition to the contract disputes, the city council has publicly battled with the firefighters on issues like boundary drop, shared management, and, most notably, fire staffing.
While the issue of a boundary drop was a 5-0 vote, reductions in fire staffing was a narrow 3-2, with Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk joining Councilmember Lucas Frerichs in dissent.
The firefighters attempted to fight back. In the winter, they created the Friends of the Firefighters group and walked precincts attempting to sway public opinion. This summer, they issued a no-confidence vote in the interim management for the fire department, Police Chief Landy Black and Assistant Chief Steve Pierce.
In September and October, they held Tuesday afternoon protests outside of city hall.
Despite these efforts, in October, it was a 4-1 vote by council to direct staff to create a JPA with UC Davis, for shared management services.
It was that agreement that triggered a letter from Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza and former Supervisor Helen Thomson that urged “the Davis City Council to take another look at the serious long-range consequences of this proposal before contracting out any of these core municipal functions. There is a key difference between sharing or coordinating services and merging governance with the constitutionally separate and unelected Regents and Chancellor.”
“This proposed action would place a well-established and effective municipal service within an entity whose primary mission is higher education and research, not public safety,” the letter continues. “This could easily result in a lessening of service and response for the residents of the Davis community and the surrounding areas historically served by the Davis Fire Department. We deeply appreciate the presence of the UC Davis campus and respect the leadership of the campus. Unified operations and efficiencies are appropriate considerations, but should not come with loss of community accountability.”
The Davis firefighters’ union, in many ways, ran the Davis City Council over a decade that saw, among other things, the expansion of fire staffing from three to four on an engine, the creation of enhanced public safety benefits including 3% at 50 in retirement pensions, and a huge 36% salary increase over the 2005-2009 MOU.
In late 2008, the Davis City Council voted 3-2 to not read the full report by Investigator Bob Aaronson who investigated Grand Jury complaints of union favoritism and hostile work environments.
However, the economic collapse and public scrutiny, starting in 2010, diminished the influence of the union on the council. And by 2012, none of the elected members of council had received endorsements or monetary contributions from the firefighters.
The hiring of Steve Pinkerton and then-interim Chief Scott Kenley signaled a new direction for council in terms of the management of the fire department.
Under the leadership of Steve Pinkerton, the city has looked to rein in runaway compensation increases that allowed for many firefighters to make over $200,000 a year in salary, overtime and benefits.
It also broke the monopoly on power that the union held over the decision-making in city hall.
As their influence declined in city hall, the firefighters’ union has attempted to marshal its forces in the community. However, the efforts at precinct walking, signature gathering, and protesting have not borne fruit.
The firefighters’ union has shown, however, that it still has teeth. The politicians that sent the letter to council, without meeting with city staff or Vice Chancellor and former City Manager John Meyer, have all had strong support over the years from the firefighters’ union.
Tuesday may be the last stand however because, barring a drastic eleventh hour change, the firefighters lack a majority on council to fire Steve Pinkerton. His contract would go into automatic renewal or he would get a nine-month severance, which the council in these hard times is not likely to wish to pay.
Nevertheless, the power of the union should not be easily dismissed. As one observer noted this week, if the Davis Downtown Business Association or the Chamber of Commerce asked the council to fire the city manager because of disagreement over parking, the response would be more likely laughter than action.
As much as the union has lost influence in city hall, it retains influence among key elected leaders throughout the Davis community. This is a battle that is not over, even as the forces of reform get closer to winning.
—David M. Greenwald reporting