Analysis: Council in a Catch-22 on New City Manager

Davis-city_hallIf 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

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. Matt Williams

        It may not even be a leak (authorized or not). As we saw from the Pinkerton “going away party” at Uncle Vitos, the firefighters union doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how their activities interact with radar altitude readings.

      2. Barack Palin

        I guess DP and David both are privy to leaks:

        Davis Progressive
        September 2, 2014 at 4:46 pm

        mainly in the fire station, recently. i can’t be more specific because it would expose the person who told me. but it appears the firefighters are still fighting the battle from last year, they’re just biding their time and using lucas and dan as their emissaries.

  1. Anon

    So we should believe what someone said someone else said who supposedly overheard what someone else said? Reminds me of watching women talking across the fence gossiping about the latest neighborhood scandal. Or the old “telephone game” where one person turns to another and whispers something in their ear, and then that person whispers what they thought they heard into the next person’s ear and so on. Eventually what comes around is absolutely nothing resembling what was originally said. My question is still the same – what specific outward acts that have been noted directly have the firemen collectively taken to effect the choice made for city manager? If no one can come up with anything they have witnessed themselves, then any such accusations are rank speculation at best IMO.

    1. David Greenwald

      I can give you specific situations that lead to my piece, but to do so would not only out my source, but put them in an extremely vulnerable position in a department where retaliation is still rampant. So I choose not to disclose my source or the specifics of the situation. You are free to choose whether or not to believe me. One thing I can tell you is that the union president is not subtle and likes to admire his handiwork, and therefore he often has witnesses to his dirty deeds. Again, to reveal details would put employees at risk and I don’t wish to do that.

      1. David Greenwald

        Well in the book the guy was flying combat missions that resulted in close calls. He was crazy to do so, but couldn’t get out of flying them without asking. However, asking represented a real fear which meant he was not crazy.

  2. Anon

    To DG: You are still relying on what someone said someone said, and then expect us to believe what someone said someone said someone said. Too tenuous for me. Even if the union president, as you claim, likes to admire his “handiwork”, whatever that may be, doesn’t mean whatever it is is making any inroads other than to make the union president feel good. You yourself conceded, if I remember rightly, it is not likely the current fire staffing model will change.

    1. Matt Williams

      Anon, let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that your premise is accurate, yielding an information linkage that is tenuous, with the level of tenuousness being a subjective assessment that varies from person to person. Many will feel like you that it is “too tenuous.” Others won’t. The question that David has to answer is what is the best way to handle the story. He chose to handle it as he did. How would you have handled it?

        1. Matt Williams

          Does that mean you are opposed to whistleblower laws?

          Who should a firefighter who has firsthand knowledge of the union’s under the table political activities talk to?

          1. Mark West

            One source, no matter how credible, is still gossip unless the information can be confirmed through some other means. Whistleblower laws protect those who provide confirm-able information, not just gossip.

  3. Tia Will

    Corroborating evidence for information provided is delayed….sometimes by years. One has to look no further than than the report involving the promotional criteria of a previous fire chief in Davis to know that this is the case. The fact that I did not name the names of the fire chief or the city council members who chose not to read the corroborating report does not make the information less reliable.

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