On Sunday the Vanguard showed how the 2004 sales tax, that was supposed to go for shoring up city services, instead ended up going to increased compensation – particularly for the firefighters. That led to the discussion by some that “it’s our elected officials’ responsibility to address the fiscal needs of our city.”
“I’m not denying that union members aren’t involved, nor do I question their right to be involved. They have the same freedom to knock on doors to support a candidate as any other group or individual who are advocating for their interests or their cause, and I would never deny their or any groups right to do so. But this does not give them decision making power, that responsibility lies with our elected officials. In my mind it is pointless to blame any special interest group, as voters we have no power to influence them or their actions. Where we do have power and influence is in the voting booth,” the poster said.
While there is some truth to that point, it misses the historic influence of the firefighters and their ability to get key like-minded people elected to office to do their bidding.
In 2008, the firefighters were at their strongest point. For their three favored candidates, the entire union delivered a bundle of 40 checks for the maximum $100 individual contribution. The effect of bundling the funds meant, instead of diffusing their influence, they could deliver those contributions as a $4000 block.
But the influence did not end there. In addition to the $12,000 in individual contributions to their three preferred candidates, they spent another $8000 on independent expenditures, dropping two flyers for their preferred candidates.
It was part of a strategy that served two purposes – one, it got like-minded politicians elected and, two, it secured the loyalty of those they got elected.
In the 2008 election, the firefighters got two of their three candidates elected and nearly unseated incumbent Sue Greenwald. That meant that, from 2002 to 2008, the firefighters had their candidates comprising seven of the nine people elected to council.
In 2004, they spent nearly $1100 on direct contributions to the three winning candidates and another $1500 in independent expenditures. The next year, the firefighters hit the jackpot with a 36 percent pay increase over the next four years. No other bargaining group contributed money that year and no other bargaining group received more than an 18 percent pay increase.
From 2002 to 2008, the firefighters contributed $40,000 to candidates that would help them maintain their 3-2 majority on the council in 2008.
This would be a crucial election as, just after the election, the Yolo County Grand Jury came out with a report that would show favoritism, hostile work environment, and drunken firefighters sleeping it off at the fire station.
City Manager Bill Emlen at the time hired City of Davis Ombudsman Bob Aaronson to do an independent follow-up report. On the night of December 9, 2008, the council was deciding whether or not to view the fire report. Councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek, neither of whom had been supported by the firefighters in their most recent election, were adamant about seeing the full version.
“I’d like to get a council consensus that we have access to all the information. The way our form of government works is that we’re responsible when we’re elected,” Councilmember Greenwald said. “Ultimately, the buck stops with us. We’re responsible through you, but we can’t evaluate how well you’re doing your job with personnel if we don’t have access to all the information.”
She added, “I just think we should as a matter of principle, as a matter of procedure. It’s a matter of accountability in government.”
Councilmember Heystek requested of City Attorney Harriet Steiner that she explain any legal grounds for withholding of information from the council in writing.
“I do agree with Councilmember Greenwald, it is important for us to see the work product of the Ombudsman, this is the first major test of our Ombudsman and we’ve paid over $35,000 I believe for this work product, and I believe I deserve to see as a councilmember the contents,” he said.
However, both Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza disagreed.
Mayor Pro Tem Saylor said, “We actually employ those two [pointing at Harriet Steiner and Bill Emlen]. Those are the two we employ.”
“In terms of policy issues, in terms of behavioral issues that are addressed in a grand jury report, we should hear from the city manager and hear his report. How he has gathered information to arrive at the conclusions and findings that he is going to be presenting to us is his responsibility,” he continued.
He added, “Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them. I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time.”
The words spoken by Councilmember Stephen Souza stick with me today, however, for some reason.
He said, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”
He continued, “I don’t need to have the ‘he said, she said’ full story. I don’t. I am not in charge of personnel, except for as Councilman Saylor said, we are in charge of two personnel, that’s who we’re in charge of, we hire and fire them,” he added. “That is our main task from a personnel standpoint. When it comes to this matter, I want to know from our ombudsman, through our city manager, how he arrived at his conclusions, and give me the pertinent information so I can come to my conclusions about it.”
While there was never an official vote, Mayor Ruth Asmundson joined Councilmembers Stephen Souza and Don Saylor in opposing the council reading the full report. All three had been supported by the firefighters in their two elections to the city council.
It would take five years and several lawsuits before the city council and the public would finally be able to read a full and unredacted fire report. But the audacity of the firefighters’ union and their influence was clear in this vote and many others.
If people want to say that it was the decision of the elected officials that counts here, I think they ignore the power of this union. From 2002 to 2008, the firefighters’ union contributed almost $42,000 to council candidates compared to just $8900 from the police union – most of that in 2006 when the issue was police oversight.
Stephen Souza in 2004 and 2008 received $8100 in direct contributions with Don Saylor right behind him at $7850.
In 2008, the average firefighter received $89,000 in salary compared to $71,500 for police officers. And, as we mentioned, the firefighters received a 36 percent raise from 2005 to 2008 while the police received an 18 percent raise from 2006 to 2009.
It wasn’t just the money, it was the fact that the candidates had the support of 40 firefighters walking precincts for them and, during critical votes, those 40 firefighters would show up at city hall in their union uniforms to remind the council of who got them there.
Anyone who believes under those conditions that the councilmembers were “free agents” is misreading history. It was not until public pressure convinced candidates starting in 2010 not to take fire endorsements or bundled contributions, that the influence of the firefighters’ union waned and reforms began. Coincidence? I think not.
—David M. Greenwald reporting