Sunday Commentary: Exposing the Dark Underbelly

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As we celebrate the Vanguard’s ninth anniversary of its founding, few of our current readers probably are aware that when we launched the Vanguard on its blogspot site back in 2006, it carried the cynical subtitle: “A vivid description of the dark underbelly of the People’s Republic of Davis.”

The entire name, The People’s Vanguard of Davis, was a “clever” play on words. Davis was often called the People’s Republic of Davis, in mocking recognition of some of its leftward policies. But the Vanguard took a different approach, believing the “progressive” Davis was just a veneer, and if you scratched just beneath the surface, you would find “the dark underbelly.”

Like the Vanguard, the “Dark Underbelly” became a bit of an evolving concept. The reality, however, hit home as I started researching the compensation system of the Davis firefighters. For years there was a notion that public servants like firefighters and police were grossly underpaid.

But in 2008, firefighters were actually the highest paid group of public employees in the city. With generous overtime allotments, most were making $150,000 in total compensation, and some were taking home more than $200,000 in pay alone, based on huge overtime numbers.

Digging deeper, following the money, it became clear that the firefighters, and their union president Bobby Weist, effectively controlled City Hall for a relatively long period of time. How? The most effective way was they utilized their numbers.

Davis has a strict $100 campaign limitation meant to prevent the overly heavy influence of various interest groups. But Bobby Weist found a way around this by getting each of his members to donate $100 and then bundled that into a $3600 to $4000 monetary contribution.

To augment that they formed independent expenditure campaigns, often spending $12,000 on flyers. And they used their numbers again to walk and hang those flyers on the doors of voters.

In a system where the top candidate might spent $30,000 or slightly more, being able to deliver $20,000 in direct and indirect contributions to candidates gave them power.

From 2002 to 2008, only two people not backed by the union were able to win a seat on city council (Sue Greenwald in 2008, Lamar Heystek in 2006).

There were two huge implications of this. First, in 2004, the firefighters were able to gain a massive 36 percent pay increase over a four-year period. And, while the council was giving away the store, no other group received even a 20 percent pay increase.

Second was the Grand Jury’s report on the Davis firefighters, released in late June 2008. It reported on the highly publicized fact that firefighters were getting drunk off duty and sleeping it off in the fire station. From our perspective, more insidious was the use of the union to curry favors for favorable members, while retaliating against those who dissented from the party line.

Under pressure, the city hired Bob Aaronson as police ombudsman, to conduct an independent review. By late fall of 2008, that report was ready to go, however, the question was how would it be released. The city manager and city attorney maintained it was a personnel file and should be presented in summary form to council and the public.

The council would effectively vote 3-2 to withhold this document, not only from the public, but the city council itself. As Stephen Souza stated, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”

This was the “dark underbelly” at its core. I was determined to make that report see the light of day. But my first few efforts proved futile. I got a report from a public records request – that had whole pages come back, blacked out.

It is ironic that the resignation of Don Saylor from the council, one of the three in the 3-2 vote, would open the door in two completely different ways. First, by ushering in a new era on council, the new council majority led by Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson were determined to pass reforms to compensation and be more amenable to transparency.

Second, in the process to replace Don Saylor, the council appointed Dan Wolk. But the process had eight candidates emerge, and the finalist was an attorney named Paul Boylan.

I did not know Paul Boylan until he announced he was seeking to be appointed to the seat. But I got to know him during that process, and I broached the topic of the fire report. So in 2012, we filed a public records request for the entire report and, after a series of negotiations, we got a much less redacted report released, revealing new information from the report.

But Paul Boylan was not satisfied with that outcome. And while I agreed not to pursue the matter again, he made no such agreement. He found another litigant, the Woodland Record, and with help from the city council and city manager, he persuaded the city to release the entire report in May 2013.

Thanks to Paul Boylan, nearly five years after the Davis City Council had voted 3-2 not to read the report themselves, the public was able to read the full report for itself.

I don’t think a lot of people understand just how great an attorney, and advocate for transparency and open public records, Mr. Boylan is.

This past month, the entire region got to see that on display. Eye on Sacramento is a watchdog group similar to the Vanguard and, in an effort to stop the city of Sacramento from deleting millions of emails that should be public record and to protect them, the group sued the city and requested a restraining order.

Observers did not think that they had a chance, but in stepped Paul Boylan at the last moment.

He won a preliminary injunction, ordering the city to save the emails. Then on July 24, the judge ruled that the city had to save about 15 million of the 80 million emails stored.

“As of July 1, the city was going to destroy the emails. As of today, they’re going to save 15 million. That’s pretty good,” said attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

Mr. Boylan was representing Sacramento residents Katy Grimes and Richard Stevenson. The Bee reported, “Grimes and Stevenson filed separate public records requests in June for emails the city planned to delete as irrelevant to the public record. Grimes had asked for city emails from Jan. 1, 2008, to present, while Stevenson requested emails that were to be deleted July 1 as part of the city’s planned move to another email system.”

“We’re happy with the 15 million. It’s a big victory for the public,” Mr. Boylan said.

Without the help of Mr. Boylan, the public in Davis would not have been informed about the true activities of the Davis Fire Department. This included the favoritism that the former fire chief used to hire the union president Bobby Weist over eight people who were objectively more qualified. And the disdain that the former fire chief had for people who dissented. And the retaliatory tactics employed.

In 2013, the work of the Vanguard served as impetus for massive reform in the fire department. Boundary drop occurred, allowing the closest unit to be the first responder regardless of whether it was a Davis or UC Davis unit.

We had personnel changes, dropping the number of firefighters from 12 to 11, but the decoupling of rescue apparatus along with boundary drop enabled the fire department not to have to shift units around, meaning that local units were in place more frequently to respond to their areas.

And this week the Vanguard reported that the shared management agreement will remain in place, at least until December 31, 2016.

None of these changes were foreseeable in December 2008 when the firefighters still controlled city hall.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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16 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Exposing the Dark Underbelly”

  1. PhilColeman

    This is a request for clarification only. No follow-up post from me should be expected.

    Is this first time Mr. Boylan has been publicly identified to this level of detail in the Vanguard?

  2. Gunrocik

    Kudos to the Vanguard — without their work the Fire Department would reign supreme.  And it isn’t just the money the fire fighters would have kept for themselves.

    Their insistence on resisting the boundary drop for two decades was a major detriment to the community.  By refusing the closest engine from UC Davis, there is no telling how many buildings and potentially lives were lost during that time.

    While Boss Weist hasn’t been completely shut down, he is no longer able to negatively impact the health and safety of our community.

    I don’t believe the status quo ever would have been changed without the fearless, tireless work of the Vanguard.

    1. Barack Palin

      I agree, this is what the Vanguard does best and I believe the community is best served by stories like this.  IMO the Vanguard should concentrate more on these types of stories and less on the continual racial articles that are posted far too frequently.

      1. Topcat

        IMO the Vanguard should concentrate more on these types of stories and less on the continual racial articles that are posted far too frequently.

        Yes, if you want to be relevant, then the focus should be on local Davis issues.

    1. Anon

      I would like to add kudos to the Vanguard for the DJUSD conflict of interest caper involving Superintendent David Murphy and former Chief Business Officer Tahir Ahad.  That was a gem!!! And also the Vanguard’s coverage of the attempt to eliminate the Davis Senior Citizens Commission!!!

      1. Barack Palin

        Add———>   MRAP coverage, even though I didn’t agree with Vanguard’s take, Pinkerton’s firefighter sponsored gone party, the Asmundson/Greenwald council meeting fiasco.

  3. Frankly

    But the Vanguardtook a different approach, believing the “progressive” Davis was just a veneer, and if you scratched just beneath the surface, you would find “the dark underbelly.”

    Ha!  “Progressivism” is THE veneer of pure liberal-Democrat.  Davis isn’t truly progressive and has never been.  We should just stop pretending that it is.

    The dark underbelly is just politics as usual for any community owning the same political and ideological bent in majority voters.  Greater political and ideological diversity tends to support greater “progress” as there is a constant tug and pull for getting things done.

    But the Vanguard has done a good job opening up the veneer for debate and discussion.  For me it provides a very valuable increased understanding of the basis for differing opinions.  I believe there is usually always one right solution to every problem or opportunity.  Progress requires that we find it and get it done and then move on to solve the next problem or opportunity.  It frustrates me to no end when we dilly and dally and seek perfection… especially when “perfection” is defined as appeasing unreasonable and irrational requirements… basically addressing feelings rather than facts.  But the VG absolutley helps move the topic forward allowing all to share their opinion and perspective.

    1. Anon

      I believe there is usually always one right solution to every problem or opportunity.”

      Really?  Have you ever heard the expression, “There is more than one way to skin a cat!”

      1. Frankly

        Sure there is more than one way, but any given problem or opportunity there is going to be one best way solution that is a decision made from an assessment of all the critical criteria.  Otherwise business would never get done.

         

        1. Jim Frame

          Sure there is more than one way, but any given problem or opportunity there is going to be one best way solution that is a decision made from an assessment of all the critical criteria.  Otherwise business would never get done.

          The assessment of constraining factors is often based on imperfect knowledge of same, thus the best solution is often unknowable except in hindsight.  Getting business done means taking one’s best shot at predicting the future, and the results vary considerably.  (Had I known that Google was going to zoom so far from its IPO price…)

           

  4. Alan Miller

    “A vivid description of the dark underbelly of the People’s Republic of Davis.”

    I wish to call the above out as a microagression with subtle racial undertones.

  5. Gunrocik

    Without the Vanguard’s watchful eye, there would be no one to expose the “Dirk” underbelly now attempting to take City Hall back to the salad days of fire union control!

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