Sunday Commentary: Firefighters Storm into 2014 Loaded For Bear

weist-picketFrom 2002 until 2008, the Davis Professional Firefighters Association dominated the Davis City Council, gaining the election of seven of their nine endorsed candidates.  In a four-election cycle period of time, only Sue Greenwald in 2008 and Lamar Heystek in 2006 were elected without the backing of the firefighters.

This changed in 2010 when first Joe Krovoza, then Rochelle Swanson and finally even Sydney Vergis, who had received the endorsement and substantial money in 2010, eschewed the firefighters’ endorsement.  That meant that firefighters could not pump in $3000 to $4000 in bundled $100 individual contributions and could not spend $12,000 on a mailer and delivering door hangers.

By 2012, no one on council had accepted firefighters’ money or endorsements and, as a result, we saw City Manager Steve Pinkerton hired with a clear goal of cleaning up the results of a decade in which we saw enhanced benefits, four on an engine, and a 36% pay hike.  By 2008, firefighters were receiving on average $175,000 in total compensation and that figure did not include overtime.

In 2013, the city council unanimously raised response time goals, enacted boundary drop and then, on 3-2 votes, reduced fire staffing from 12 to 11 and implemented shared management services in which UC Davis’ fire chief would run both UC Davis’ fire department as well as the city of Davis.

While the firefighters were quiet in both 2010 and 2012 city council elections, we expect 2014 to be a very different story.  The firefighters fought the city every step of the way in 2013, eventually losing on all four of the policy changes as well as having their new contract imposed on them by a unanimous 5-0 vote in December.

Attempts by the firefighters to organize the community were less than successful.  They attempted to walk precincts and hold community meetings last winter, and while those efforts produced a few community members coming to council meetings on their behalf, their letter writing campaign actually resulted in a large percentage of citizens supporting reform.

Efforts to organize a quasi-grassroots – i.e. astroturf group – Friends of the Davis Firefighters proved fleeting.  Protests in front of city council and a no-confidence vote yielded little in the way of traction.  And, while the firefighters claimed 2000 signatures on a fall petition drive, it was never turned into council.

However, to take the efforts of the firefighters lightly is to miss their critical, yet more subtle, successes.  First of all, their financial filing show that this is a very formidable group.  In a 990-EZ filed on September 24, 2013, it showed the union with an ending fund balance of $353,573 in 2012 down from $404,423 at the end of 2011.  While more recent filings are not available, the amount of assets by the Davis Professional Firefighters easily trumps other organizations.


In the meantime, Bobby Weist and the union have shown to still yield a great amount of political influence.  It was announced by the governor’s office that “Bobby Weist of Vacaville, a longtime Davis firefighter, was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Volunteers Board of Commissioners.”

“Weist has served in multiple positions at the Davis Fire Department since 1985, including fire captain and firefighter. He is a member of Davis Firefighters Local 3494 board and chairman of the City of Davis Fire Department Joint Apprentice Committee,” the release continued.  “He was a field representative at Carroll Burdick and McDonough from 1999 to 2007.”

In November, the Vanguard learned that four of the highest elected officials within the city of Davis: Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza, as well as former Supervisor Helen Thomson, wrote a letter to the Davis City Council opposing the shared services agreement.

The letter argued, “We believe that governance of public safety is and must remain a core function of the elected City Council of Davis. Community oversight and accountability is an important element of municipal services.”

They write, “We urge 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.”

A second letter carried a similar message from Former County Supervisor Betsy Marchand, Alan Fernandes, who most recently was a candidate for school board, Former Davis City Councilmembers Mike Corbett and Ted Puntillo, and Former Mayor Ruth Asmundson.

They argued, “We believe this decision was made in haste and without a full examination of the proposal’s implications.”

The writers added they found it “deeply disturbing” that the council “would take such quick action on an item as critical as public safety management, relying solely on the simple presentation of a consultant report and without attempting to conduct further analysis or seek any real public input.”

They continued, “Consolidating the City of Davis’ fire management authority with a University whose central mission has nothing do with providing public safety services could have serious consequences in our community.”

While the letter writing campaign did not reverse the 4-1 council vote from October 2013, it did flip Mayor Pro Tem and candidate for Assembly Dan Wolk who supported the agreement in October but voted to oppose it the second time around.  Of the letter writers, six have endorsed Dan Wolk.

Last week we reported that the Mayor Pro Tem was sitting in the lobby with Fire Captain Emily Lo, who appeared to be briefing him on precisely what to ask and what points to make.

Mayor Pro Tem Wolk then questioned some of the report, its motivation, and even accused the city manager of making unprofessional comments.

“To be quite honest, I found the staff report to be written almost as if it were making an argument,” he said.  “Written with a certain amount of persuasion in mind.  One of those was the staffing changes where the first part of the staffing changes talks about the benefits and it sort of talks about how, it says, ‘finally there is no evidence that the staffing changes have created an unsafe condition for the city and its firefighters.’”

Later, near the end of the item, he would add, “I was very disconcerted by your sentence at the end of overtime saying, ‘It is interesting to note that once the staffing levels were reduced, making the extra Firefighter II available for coverage of the first vacancy that the sick and vacation usage increased.’”

He said that this “is an insinuation that the firefighters are taking more sick leave and vacation time on purpose… because of this new policy.”  He added, “I found it very disconcerting again with regards to getting unbiased information to us, that that was in there.  I thought it was inflammatory, I think what it insinuates is very inflammatory.”

Steve Pinkerton responded, “Point taken.  I’m sorry if it seemed inflammatory.  We’re just doing a data analysis and pointing out the disparities in the data.”

The firefighters may have also succeeded in running the city manager, whose work helped to implement most of the policy changes last year, out of town.  The Vanguard reported that two of the councilmembers, Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk, sought to fire Mr. Pinkerton last November.

We have since learned that the city manager, although he survived that effort, is seeking employment at Incline Village, which has offered him a position as their general manager.  While he has not officially accepted as of yet, that may be only a matter of time and formality.

An agenda seems to suggest that a contract will come forward at their next meeting for approval.

The stakes are high for 2014.  Joe Krovoza has been a reliable vote for reform, both in June 2011 when he voted to reduce employee compensation by $2.5 million and throughout 2013 when he was part of 3-2 majority, as was Rochelle Swanson.

Joe Krovoza will leave the council as he runs for the Assembly.  Rochelle Swanson runs for reelection.  Both Robb Davis and Daniel Parrella came out in favor of the reform measures when they spoke to the Vanguard.  However, Sheila Allen told the Vanguard of her opposition to two of the critical reforms.

“The change in staffing,” she said, “from where I sit today, I have concerns about the decrease from 4 to 3 at a station for the amount of savings that it revealed.”

“I think I would have kept it at four,” she stated.  “I don’t think that the cost savings really is sufficient enough to have us not have them do their jobs.”

“Shared management,” she said.  “Well I have some concerns.”

“I again, back to the cooperation, I think they need to work together as carefully and as seamlessly as possible,” Ms. Allen said.  “But I have concerns about giving up the city’s control and not being directly over the whole fire department.”

One of the big questions for 2014 will be how the firefighters attempt to approach wielding their influence.  It seems that gone are the days when the firefighters will bundle cash contributions and drop door hangers.

Sheila Allen told the Vanguard, “I will not be actively seeking out bundled or organized financing from any group, but I don’t have a problem with receiving funds from one individual.”

She stated, “My influence cannot be purchased.”

She did say she would not have the firefighters deliver fliers or actively campaign on her behalf, but she said that she is not decided on whether she would take their endorsement.  “I don’t know, I haven’t decided,” she said when asked by the Vanguard.

But the stakes are high for the firefighters and they have a bundle of cash on hand that they need to utilize one way or another.  We will see what 2014 brings.

—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 issue

    Outsource the whole fire dept. They’re making total compensation packages of $175,000/yr. and that doesn’t count overtime yet they picket in front of City Hall. Are they worth the trouble when we have 300 job applicants lined up in the cold that I’m sure would be more than willing to do their job for $100,000/yr. compensation package? Has anyone done the math on that, how much would a savings like that be to our city deficit?

        1. David Greenwald

          I have heard from officials that there needs to be time and space to change the culture of the fire department and the advocacy of firing the firefighters is likely to make things worse. Frankly that’s not something that is ever going to happen anyway.

          1. iPad Guy

            Sounds as though more folks (your sources) are runnin’ scared. “Change the culture” in the firefighter union–fat chance. Who is left to carry the banner for Davis taxpayers?

            One election and we’re back where we were a year ago, on a more unsustainable path and with decisions being made from the fire station. Any reason to assume that our situation is not hopeless?

          2. David Greenwald

            “One election and we’re back where we were a year ago, on a more unsustainable path and with decisions being made from the fire station. Any reason to assume that our situation is not hopeless?”

            Ask me on June 4

    1. Matt Williams

      G.I., serious question (setting aside our sometimes playful sparring with one another) … is your statement above just rhetoric, or do you know of outsourcing companies that operate fire departments as part of their business offerings?

      If there really are such fire department outsourcing possibilities then outsourcing is an opportunity/alternative worth discussing, but if there aren’t any companies that provide the service, then all talking an unavailable option does is heighten angst.

      1. Nancy Price

        Why is outsourcing always raised as the way to “fix” some problem or the budget?

        While it might be interesting to study if there are such firefighting outsourcing companies…probably are – everything is getting outsourced these days to for-profit corporations – a careful comparative study, of course, would be needed.

        But, there are also some fundamental issues. If there are questions about the arrangement with UC Davis, why would outsourcing be any better? Of course, proponents would argue that they can create a contract that would serve the city well, but….

        Seems to me that outsourcing is meant to solve only the power of the union problem and correct for mistakes on salary and benefits of the past.

        1. growth issue

          I think a great candidate to take over the fire dept. would be UCD. We’ll pay UCD to manage the dept. and they can hire a whole new Davis crew at UCD’s current pay scale and benefits. If our firefighters want to go work for UCD they would be welcome to apply. This would also solve the problem of merging two different departments. I don’t know if something like that is legally possible, but it’s worth consideration.

          1. SouthofDavis

            hpierce wrote:

            > If the cost to the City significantly decreases cost, with no
            > reduction of service, why would having a provider making a
            > profit be an issue?

            Many on the left hate any kind of “profit”. It is OK if a firefighter is making $200K or a Professor is making $400K as long as they are working for a “non-profit”…

  2. Ryan Kelly

    I have difficulty viewing the firefighters as oppressed City employees. They do work hard, but I think we pay them well and do not understand why they are griping about their work conditions. I absolutely do not understand why morale is low. They have a “dream job” (quote from one of the recent applicants).

    1. Matt Williams

      Well said Ryan. One thing that I would add is that their constant griping sends a continual “we’re better than you are” message to their public safety brethren in the police department. That isn’t good for inter departmental cohesion and cooperation either.

  3. J.R.

    Firefighters want to be respected and admired by the community. Because of their excessive compensation, they are viewed as greedy and grasping by the community they serve. As a result they want even higher pay to compensate.

  4. Tia Will

    “Consolidating the City of Davis’ fire management authority with a University whose central mission has nothing do with providing public safety services could have serious consequences in our community.”

    I feel that there is a serious distraction occurring here that is obscuring real issues. The fact that an entity such as the university, does not have in its core mission statement the words “public safety” does not mean that public safety is not a major goal and major competency of their fire department. This very narrow view of what must be included in a mission statement should not be used as a wedge to block the kind of collaboration that could provide a merger of complimentary competencies. I can envision an integrated department in which there are specializations based on differing needs such as increasing need for preventive well fare checks in the community as compared with the decrease in number of fire calls and the special need for hazardous material expertise at the University given the presence of experimental chemistry which ultimately might prove useful for a community anticipating incased amounts of hazardous materials being moved through town by train.

    There has been a great deal of focus on innovation in our community recently. I see a collaborative project between the UCD firefighters and the Davis firefighters as a major opportunity and a logical step in innovation within this critical area of safety for both he university and city of Davis.

    1. Robb Davis

      Good points Tia. I had a very informative talk with Nate Trauernicht last week and he helped me understand that the UC Davis and Woodland departments provide hazmat responses for the entire county. That is their expertise and all UC Davis firefighters have advanced certification in Hazmat response (I may not be saying this exactly right but you get the picture). The City of Davis provides complex extraction (jaws of life I assume) service for the county and city firefighters have training in that. In a sense we are already sharing services across our county.

      The point is, rhetoric about UC Davis not having public safety as a core concern is not helpful to the discussion.

      I left my conversation with Chief Trauernicht greatly encouraged that we have an excellent fire and safety response capability in our town and at our university. For that we should all be grateful. Chief Trauernicht is a mature and engaging leader and I want to support him in his efforts to raise the standards for both the city and the university. There are exciting initiatives in place and on the horizon.

  5. Mr. Toad

    ” The Vanguard reported that two of the councilmembers, Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk, sought to fire Mr. Pinkerton last November.”

    You keep saying this but you have not yet provided any evidence as to what happened to substantiate your claim. You really should have higher standards because your “if you say it enough people will believe it” repetition undermines your credibility. If you want to be credible tell us what happened or keep it to yourself.

    1. iPad Guy

      I believe The Vanguard reporting. For one reason, all of the circumstantial evidence has lined up a time has passed. For another thing, at least two council members have provided strong hints that concur. For another thing, Lucas and Dan have hidden out making not a peep.

      It’s patently obvious that Lucas and Dan cannot deny the reports because they don’t want to get caught in a lie and/or because they want to reap the benefit of unions knowing or thinking they that the two of them did the dirty deed as planned, albeit temporarily unsuccessfully.

      You must notice that you are the only one in denial. Not even Bobby Weist seems to be protesting David’s reporting.

      1. hpierce

        Could there have been a nuance, that the two CC members were not in favor of a new contract offer, content to let the current one expire, without an immediate termination? Have no way of knowing, just curious. This ‘theory’ would be consistent with “facts” presented to date.

      1. Mr. Toad

        I am not a reporter. I am not making unsubstantiated claims. I am not splitting hairs. If you report something give us the story. Otherwise don’t expect anyone to consider this a credible operation.

  6. Mr. Toad

    Here is Brett’s remark “As you have reported, currently there are three votes that support retaining Steve. The three of us are not able to promise what will happen after June since we do not know what will happen in that election.”

    That there are three votes supporting him is different than they sought to fire him. If you want to report they sought to fire him tell us what happened because nobody but you is making this claim and its a serious accusation. What did they say or do?

        1. hpierce

          Probably spelled it wrong, but learned the term from a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. Too easy, as one of Bugs’ lines was, if I recall correctly, “don’t split hares”. Shows my age.

          1. Esregnet

            Hasenpfeffer … Hasen (rabbit) Pfeffer (pepper)

            Most sources will say it is a rabbit stew, but in a lot of places it is more commonly served on a plate, generally with spatzle or potatoes, sort of like a meat sauce served with spaghetti.

            And if you remember it from Bugs Bunny, you’ll probably remember it from the opening of Laverne & Shirley. 🙂

          2. hpierce

            Oh… my signifcant other exposed me (as a young child teacher) to the concept of “invented spelling”, so I guess I’m reverting to being a small child. BTW, think invented spelling has its place in early education.

  7. Davis Progressive

    everyone got lost in their agenda from the folks who want to outsource to Mr. Toad who somehow wants to carve David up for keeping his sources and everyone missed the big picture here: $353,573. HOLY CRAP. these guys can dominate if they want to.

    1. Matt Williams

      $353,573. HOLY CRAP. these guys can dominate if they want to.

      DP, “these guys” can only dominate if we choose to let them dominate. What really should dominate is our intelligence and common sense as a community.

      We really do have a choice … we can choose to be swayed by the firefighters’ money or we can be swayed by the core characteristics of our candidates for office, one of whom is Robb Davis.

      I’ve only known Robb for 3 years, and was recently at a gathering of a group of people who have known him much longer than me. What those people said about Robb really resonated. Here’s a sample from my notes:

      — Robb is a great communicator

      — Robb promotes dialogue

      — Robb’s ideas are shared in an organized and logical way

      — Robb “sees the way though the maze”

      — Robb walks the talk

      — Robb is a community builder

      — Robb has a devotion to family and community

      It was incredibly impressive to hear. I am left eith the following question, “Do those descriptions apply to the firefighters’ bank balance and checkbook?

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