If you read the council agenda item for Saturday, they figure to have a long day as they plan to interview the city manager finalists. No one knows how long this will take or how close we are to having a new city manager. Everyone acknowledges this is one of the most key decisions that this council will have to make.
Naturally, there is plenty of reason for concern, given the magnitude of the decision.
Someone asked the question of what would have happened with the MRAP controversy had former City Manager Steve Pinkerton still been around. While it is difficult to know for sure, Mr. Pinkerton would have had a better sense of what the community response would have been and hopefully would have avoided springing the issue on the city council by surprise and at the last moment.
That is the hopeful answer, but it would require that he learn from the Mace 391 debacle when he misread public sentiment, agendized the item as a consent item, and caught many on the council off guard. The biggest problem in the handling of the MRAP situation was that no one recognized community sentiment, but also the council needed to be alerted.
So what does this mean for a new city manager? The biggest weakness of Steve Pinkerton was that he did not come from Davis and so he had to quickly learn the players and the lay of the land, and understand community sentiment. On an issue like MRAP, or cell towers, or even development, that may be a critical need for people in charge to actually have a bead on the community.
However, as we saw over and over again under the leadership of Bill Emlen, familiarity with the community was no assurance that the city would recognize community sentiment. The NewPath incident, where a communications company was allowed to beginning setting up a communications array without public input or proper public notification, illustrates that even under a city manager hired internally with decades’ worth of experience in Davis, these mistakes can occur.
Besides, the biggest factor that Steve Pinkerton brought to the table was his independence. Steve Pinkerton had a council majority backing him on things like budget cuts, new contracts, impasse, and, of course, firefighter reform. But while Mr. Pinkerton had to forge ground at times on 3-2 votes, much of the heavy lifting on the tough reforms came from city staff itself.
It was the work of Steve Pinkerton in bringing in the right person to do a department audit – Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley, and his work in laying a solid and credible foundation, that enabled the city in 2013 to pass sweeping fire reforms, despite being opposed at every step of the way by the firefighters’ union.
The firefighters’ union had controlled the levers of local government for well over a decade when the Vanguard arrived at the scene. From 2002-2008, the firefighters’ union got 7 of their 9 backed candidates elected – only Lamar Heystek in 2006 and Sue Greenwald in 2008 were elected without firefighter backing.
The union’s influence was so strong that they got a majority of council to oppose reading the full Davis Fire Report in 2008.
That changed in 2010 when a new council emerged that was not beholden to the firefighters’ union and, slowly, reform began to occur.
But it was tenuous at best. In 2013, while the entire council would back boundary drop, relaxing emergency response times and imposing the last, best, and final offer, there was a split on two of the most key reforms – fire staffing and shared management services.
The firefighters showed their decline by failing to be able to get to three votes last year on either issue. However, the incident involving the shared management issue is telling. Originally, four councilmembers back the shared management services.
Then five of the county’s elected officials – Mariko Yamada, Lois Wolk, Don Saylor and Jim Provenza along with former Supervisor and Assemblymember Helen Thomson – signed a letter in opposition to the services. That was enough to cause Dan Wolk to flip and it was enough to illustrate the hold that the firefighters still have on the Democratic establishment.
At the last election in June, we saw the decline of the Democratic establishment as few of their backed candidates won, and those who did run primarily ran unopposed.
However, the firefighters’ union has not given up. They fought reforms to the death. They attempted to precinct walk and rally the community to their side – to little avail. They attempted to protest outside of City Hall. They formed a Friends of the Firefighters Committee. They attempted a no confidence vote of Landy Black, who was put in charge of both departments for a time.
They got not one, but two letters from prominent Democratic officials. None of this worked.
When that failed, they convinced two councilmembers to attempt to fire the city manager and while that move was unsuccessful, it led ultimately to the exit of Steve Pinkerton.
Now the firefighters sense an opportunity, even though on paper it still looks like there is a 3-2 majority on council to keep the reforms in place. However, the firefighters are smart enough to know that if they can get a more sympathetic city manager hired, they can begin to break down some of the reforms that were put into place last year.
It won’t be easy. Steve Pinkerton did a good job in his implementation of two key things – first, the shared management services were set up to auto-renew, which means that the council has to act to overturn that arrangement. Second, the same auto-renew feature is part of the change to the “three on an engine” fire staffing.
Given the city’s fiscal situation it will be difficult for council to get three votes to revert back to the “four on an engine” fire staffing, or end shared management, or take a less aggressive stance on a new contract. But cracking the door open to the still formidable firefighters’ union with its huge amounts of manpower and resources would be a huge mistake.
The best way to guard against having to fight another round of battles is to hire a city manager from outside the county’s power structure.
Since we do not know who the city manager candidates are, it is difficult to speculate at this point, but there are clear signs that Bobby Weist and the firefighters’ union are making the city manager choice the latest battleground in their fight to reestablish their influence in City Hall, and the city manager decision by council will go far in establishing what the next few years will look like locally.
—David M. Greenwald reporting