To say the discussion on Tuesday night on the shared management of the fire department was odd and strained defies the conventional meaning of those words. It was almost as though there were two separate discussions taking place simultaneously – one in plain English and one in pretext.
In the strictest sense, while the discussion was odd, the path that the council took was limited – an RFP (Request for Proposals) that would analyze the location of the current downtown fire station and its need for reconstruction, and a subcommittee that would an analyze these findings. The council stopped short – it would appear – of a more generalized review of shared management.
Nevertheless, there were 800-pound gorillas in the room that simply went unaddressed.
Union President Bobby Weist got up to the podium and lied through his teeth. He said, “I’d like to make clear, because I’ve been misquoted, the union’s been misquoted, we have never opposed shared management.”
No one challenged this view of history. The fact is that Bobby Weist did not simply oppose shared management – he opposed every single reform handed down by council in 2013. For years, the union had blocked boundary drop until it became obvious that even his allies on council would not back him.
He opposed the changes to fire staffing and configuration of stations. His bargaining unit had to have their contract imposed on them. And, most of all, he opposed shared management.
When I say opposed, I don’t just mean in passive terms. I mean in active terms: from canvassing neighborhoods, to letters, to protests in front of City Hall, to no confidence votes, to unfair labor practice complaints – the works.
So, for him to say he didn’t oppose shared management, it is being charitable to call that an inaccurate interpretation of history.
He tried to turn this into an issue of lack of information.
He said, “It’s not about the shared management. It’s about the things that are going on or not going on. The lack of information that we’re getting. Hopefully that will change now that we’re going to be getting weekly updates – but we’ve asked for that for two years.”
The reality is this isn’t about information or weekly updates or weekly meetings – the problem is that Bobby Weist cannot control Nathan Trauernicht and has spent the last two years trying to discredit him and he has just enough support on council to get a hearing on the matter but not quite enough for it to change anything.
So the best he can get is Mayor Dan Wolk talking about the fact that “morale is still low there.” He said, “I think we got an issue there.”
From Chief Trauernicht’s perspective, the answer to that is duh, what do you expect?
As he responded on Tuesday, “The firefighters also are without a contract. Our staffing levels were cut. Those things, as much as we may or may not want to admit, play into morale. They’re a huge part of it.”
Mayor Wolk backtracked slightly, stating, “I get that.”
The reality is that Mr. Trauernicht was being nice. Of course there is a morale issue there. The firefighters fought the contract that every other bargaining unit other than DCEA (Davis City Employees Association) signed and had it imposed upon them. The firefighters had their staffing cut. The firefighters were forced to answer to a chief under boundary drop they don’t like. Of course they have bad morale.
Why is that on Chief Trauernicht? Why is Dan Wolk, who voted for some of those changes, especially impasse, surprised that there would be low morale? Why is Dan Wolk calling out the chief – rather than the union president who has refused to play ball with the city – and not laying at least some of this on Mr. Weist’s doorstep?
But there is another point no one wants to bring up – these firefighters with such low morale, even with the imposed contract, are receiving $150,000 to $250,000 in total compensation per year. If they are so miserable, transfer to another department or get another job. I am sure we can find someone who will be happy with that compensation and the chance to live and work in this community.
But on Tuesday we really didn’t have a debate on the core issues; instead we had a debate on core competency of the university. This is Councilmember Frerich’s argument.
While Mr. Frerichs has repeatedly said in public that he supports shared management, I have to at least question how deep that support goes.
“I voted against the shared management structure originally. I said publicly I support it now,” he said. “I still (have) concerns about the university’s core competency, is about the teaching of students as opposed to running a fire station. There’s not a lot of other examples out there in California about universities that are running fire stations.”
He said, “I think there are kinks in the process.” He added, “I do think some sort of examination of it is not a bad thing.”
Robb Davis called him on this.
“I find it troubling to hear somehow that it’s more of a core competency of the city than it is of the university,” the mayor pro tem pointed out. “I kind of want to put that aside and recognize that we are in a partnership with a very professional organization that’s culturally a bit different, has different responsibilities from property but essentially is just as qualified as what we have on our streets, which is very high quality.”
Lucas Frerichs, responding to Robb Davis, said, “I’ve said that the university’s core competency is that they teach students.” He added, “I didn’t say they don’t have competency… of the ability of the UC Davis fire station to protect the campus.”
From my perspective I think, with all due respect to Mr. Frerichs, the core competency issue is a non-issue. It is not like we are asking college professors to fight fires. Instead, we have professional people like John Meyer and, more recently, Karl Mohr, who hire a professional fire chief who is then charged with managing and staffing his department.
How different is that from Dirk Brazil – who obviously has no more experience in this area as John Meyer does (and a good deal less, as he had Mr. Meyer do an audit of the city). Dirk Brazil actually wanted to hire Karl Mohr to work in the city. So I don’t buy into this core competency issue.
The question I had was why the council was not more willing to call out Mr. Weist on Tuesday for his disingenuous comments. On the one hand, I got the response that the whole exchange was tame and that Mr. Weist is fairly “toothless” these days.
But the other thing I got was a perception that this was essentially a pissing match between Mr. Weist and Chief Trauernicht. The suggestion was that somehow both bear responsibility.
The problem with that view is Mr. Weist has been fighting every single reform since Interim Chief Kenley’s audit came to light in late 2012. In November 2013, Mr. Weist enlisted ten public officials in two letters to attempt to pressure the city council against the shared management.
In the fall of 2014, the Vanguard learned that Mr. Weist had enlisted Lou Paulson, President of the California Professional Firefighters, to put political pressure on UC Davis. They were pushing that a “qualified neutral third-party be retained for the purpose of conducting an evaluation and independent audit of the agreement.”
Mr. Weist then offered that Local 3494 “fund the evaluation/audit and requests your support in establishing a reasonable time frame for parties to submit their respective recommendations and develop a scope of work to be conducted.”
Vice Chancellor Karl Mohr and Interim City Manager Gene Rogers responded, “We do not believe an audit of the Agreement is necessary or appropriate at this time.”
But Mr. Weist wasn’t done. He enlisted legislative help to attempt to invalidate the agreement legislatively. He also pressured the state firefighters to strip Chief Trauenicht of his leadership position with the state firefighters.
When these tactics did not work, Mr. Weist attempted to get the Davis firefighters’ union to effectively engage in a work slowdown, doing the minimum possible so as to not get in trouble, but to cut back on all other extra work in the fall of 2014.
Mr. Weist continues his efforts to undermine the leadership of Chief Trauernicht and get the Davis firefighters out from underneath the shared management agreement.
The reality is this: want to improve morale, want to get incremental changes to the policy? It is long past time for Bobby Weist to retire and turn over the union leadership to younger firefighters who will work with the city and community in order to create the best service to the community.
Until that happens, we will continue to have these little episodes that only touch on the very surface as to what is going on.
—David M. Greenwald reporting