Monday Morning Thoughts: It Is Easy to Under-Estimate Impacts of Firefighters’ Union on City Politics


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

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. Tia Will

    It is Easy To Under-Estimate Impacts of Firefighters Union on City Politics”

    “Anyone who believes under those conditions, the councilmembers were “free agents” is misreading history.”

    There are many times on the Vanguard when the mixing of tenses does not have any major impact on message. This is not one of them. You use the word “is” when describing impacts of the firefighters union, but then spend the bulk of the article describing events of  seven and eleven years ago and only in your last paragraph get around to mentioning that this is no longer the case.

    In the elections of and since 2010 bundling of contributions has not occurred. If you are going to make the claim that accepting bundled contributions was in and of itself corrupting ( I make no claim one way or the other) then surely you must feel that the negative effects of bundling must not be present when there is no bundling.

    One could just as easily have written this article from a perspective of celebration that this practice has ended. One might then draw the conclusion that we now have a more open, less biased group of city council members who have earned more trust.

    1. David Greenwald

      I see it as history as a prelude and in response to the idea that we should hold the public officials accountable and ignore the special interest groups. My point here is that the special interest group itself created the conditions of their influence. And the potential for history to repeat.

      1. Biddlin

        If you are going to recite history, it is only honest to include your personal grudge(and its genesis) in this protracted vendetta against the ff’s union.


        1. David Greenwald

          Oh good point, after I started reporting critically on the firefighters, they attempted to get my wife fired from her work, they attempted to boycott a business to dissuade them from advertising on the Vanguard, and attempted to get me and my family kicked out of our home.

    2. PhilColeman

      With full respect and consideration of the other persons’ reaction to this particular point, I saw David’s column as largely being historical. The more recent fire fighter union attempts to mold public and political opinion towards their needs have failed, utterly and completely.

      It would be a bit self-serving, but Davis could also have continued the topic, and transitioned from the historical to contemporary to show how far the fire fighter union has fallen from grace in the public eye. Two persons were primarily responsible in descending order: Rich Rifkin and David Greenwald. That’s most worthy of an historical and political analysis.

      I agree on Tia’s point regarding the “tense” of the headline column. It strongly implies that the fire-fighter union’s political influence is sustained to this day. Instead, the union has declined to a level of irrelevancy in current local politics. Future candidates for Davis public office accepts fire-fighter money at great peril.

      And I’d really love to hear the story how the fire-fighter union tried to get David’s wife fired and toss them out of their house. If that story is true, still another fire-fighter union blunder.

      1. Barack Palin

        And I’d really love to hear the story how the fire-fighter union tried to get David’s wife fired and toss them out of their house. If that story is true, still another fire-fighter union blunder.

        Me too, I’d like to hear that story and also would like to hear the follow up story of what happened at the pizza party that David said he might write someday.

  2. Tia Will

    the idea that we should hold the public officials accountable and ignore the special interest groups.”

    I am completely in agreement with the concept of accountability of public officials. In the case of 2004, I happen to agree that one group was able to successfully influence the election of “likeminded” politicians. However, I also believe that the label “special interest group” is too often used to label those with whom we disagree while pretending that we are not all, the moment that we enter into public advocacy for any cause including limiting the influence of “special interest groups”, part of  a special interest group ourselves. One could even argue that now, those who are not specifically “likeminded” with the firefighters, in part because of the information and actions of the Vanguard, are now the majority on the city council.

  3. zaqzaq

    Which of the current city council members accepted money from the firefighters?  [moderator: edited for language]   It is also interesting that the firefighters went to impasse in the last contract negotiations.  I suspect that there is some institutional memory about how the firefighters succeeded in 2008 which they will not likely replicate.

  4. Barack Palin

    Let’s not forget the firefighter’s “gone” party that included a countdown and celebration of Pinkerton’s departure that was held in a local pizza parlor and attended by some current and past council members and a council candidate.  That was some of the Vanguard’s best reporting ever.

    We need to stay vigilant on firefighter union council influence to insure that it never happens again.

    1. David Greenwald

      It shouldn’t be nearly as surprising as you think.  After all, while most people support Davis’ $100 individual campaign limitation, the people who can put forty of those together and deliver a $4000 block are going to have a strong advantage.  Couple that with the ability to deliver a $12,000 Independent Expenditure campaign and you are effectively delivering $16,000 worth of campaign contributions in a system where most candidates are raising about that on their own.  So under those conditions – why wouldn’t such an influx of money be influential?

      1. Frankly

        It is not only this, it is the manpower…

        It wasn’t just the money, it was the fact that the candidates had the support of 40 firefighters walking precincts for them

        People mistakenly discount this.  A city council campaign is really not that expensive.  And if you think about it, getting enough people to donate $100 is really a right of passage test… if you cannot, then it is likely you will not garner enough voter support to be elected.

        But campaign labor is a big deal.   And organization of that campaign labor is a big deal.

        If a 40-person organization with a lot of experience helping with campaign offers to help, you would have a leg up on the competition.

        I view this an attractive nuance for politicians that foments a conflict of interest and that borders on political malfeasance and corruption.

        As the US government was debating what would eventually become, in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act, the rights of public-sector workers to unionize.  In fact, in the end, this act did not include public sector workers.  That right did not come until later… and it was and still is a giant mistake.

        Even labor hero and New Deal architect FDR did not want government employees to unionize.  He wrote:

        “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” he wrote. “It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.”

        “The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations,”

        Since Davis has a high percentage of residents employed by or otherwise supported by government payments of some kind, it is likely that the right for government employees to unionize and/or organize for collective bargaining would be strongly defended.  And I see this turn toward blaming the politicians for the fiscal mess we find ourselves in at all levels of government as being somewhat rooted in that stubborn position.  And while I completely agree that the politicians are to be blamed, I see the existence of organized public-sector unions as a catalyst of misbehaving politicians.  Their money and manpower is like a cocaine to a power-seeking politician.  Once addicted it is too hard to break the habit.

        Government employees are actually employees of the people.  They are funded 100% from tax money paid by the people.  There is a huge conflict of interest when these employee are allowed much more power to influence their own pay than is the tax-paying public able to influence it.  It causes corruption of the democratic process.  And we see the fiscal damage this is causing at all levels of government.

        1. Davis Progressive

          this is a good point – the two best ground operations we have seen lately were krovoza 2010 and robb davis 2014, did they have 40 regular campaign walkers?

  5. Tia Will


    I agree with your point about influence. But let’s get back to the issue of “special interest” for a moment. What would stop any group with similar interests, lets say a neighborhood association, or a group of investors, or a group of high tech businessmen and their investors from mounting a similar coordinated effort ?  Probably a little harder to “follow the money” but possible all the same. We all have our own “special interests” and all of us who engage however peripherally in the public sphere can be considered as advocates for those “special interests”.

    1. Davis Progressive

      the problem i have with the firefighters actions is that their purpose was to enrich their own livelihood off a public good and public service.  that’s where money corrupts.  the amazing thing that happened is when the vanguard exposed it, they were able to stop the flow of money and it allowed us at least for a brief period of time to reclaim our community.

  6. aaahirsch8

    David (and comments that follow up and expand on or challenge him!) once again give background on stories that are left out in the Enterprise.


  7. Gunrocik

    The fire fighters had a free reign in this town pre-Vanguard.

    Without the Vanguard, would there have even been an Aronson report?

    Without the Aronson report, would there have been the ability for a Krovoza or Swanson to get elected.

    And without Krovoza and Swanson on Council there would have been zero chance of reigning in fire.

    But while they are down, they aren’t dead.  While they didn’t pay for Frerichs and Wolks campaign, they did a lot of legwork.  When Frerichs had a fundraiser for the overseas kids — who brought the food –the firefighters.  When no one else stepped up to fund the sales tax campaign, who stepped up, the firefighters.  When they went into impasse, who picketed City Hall off and on for weeks–the firefighters.

    And when it came time for a new City Manager, who worked behind the scenes to get someone they could control?  The firefighters.

    Without the continuing vigilance of the Vanguard, there is no question that the firefighters will again take control of the city’s coffers for their own personal enrichment.




  8. Barack Palin

    Without the continuing vigilance of the Vanguard, there is no question that the firefighters will again take control of the city’s coffers for their own personal enrichment.

    IMO the firefighters already have two of the five council members in their corner.  It just takes a flip of one more and they have the council they want again.

    1. Matt Williams

      Barack Palin: “IMO the firefighters already have two of the five council members in their corner. It just takes a flip of one more and they have the council they want again.”

      Sounds like the June 2016 Council election is going to be very important.

        1. hpierce

          Nah… heard that the Muni Code has a five year residency requirement.  For Public Comment @ CC meetings, the requirement is 3 months residency before the speaker can claim to be a “long-time Davis resident”.

        2. Gunrocik

          I’ve also heard there is a Muni Code provision requiring all candidates to refrain from serving on the Vanguard Editorial Board within two years of filing for elective office.  🙂


        3. hpierce

          Ok Gunrocik, gonna’ call you on this!  How do I do emoticons, so I can put one on my previous comment to show ‘tongue fully in cheek’?  Glad you read between my lines.

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