Commentary: Council Won’t End Fire Charade

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Union President Bobby Weist, Davis, CA - Davis Vanguard
Union President Bobby Weist addresses council

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

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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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21 thoughts on “Commentary: Council Won’t End Fire Charade”

  1. Barack Palin

    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 change to live and work in this community.

    Thank you, took the words right out of my mouth.

    1. Barack Palin

      If any council member had stated to the public what David wrote here they would’ve gained instant respect from the community.  I for one am tired of people that are making $150,000 to $250,000/year compensation packages with jobs where they get a lot of down and sleep time complaining to the public that their morale is low.  F##k it then, quit!  You’re easily replaced.

      1. South of Davis

        BP wrote:

        >  I for one am tired of people that are making $150,000 to $250,000/year

        > compensation packages with jobs where they get a lot of down and sleep

        > time complaining to the public that their morale is low.

        Don’t forget that they only have to show up for work half as often as most people and most have plenty of time to work at a second job (and afford a ski boat “and” fishing boat).

        What other job (that requires a 2 year JC Degree) lets you retire at 50 with a cash pension of over $100K (former Davis firefighter Rose Conroy’s $130K pension is below).

        http://transparentcalifornia.com/pensions/2014/calpers/rose-m-conroy/

        1. Barack Palin

          Yes SOD, good points.   The firefighters can cry me a river for all I care but when the public hears this ‘low morale’ crap I think it backfires on them.

  2. Barack Palin

    Like I stated yesterday, a few of our council members are straining really hard to try and come up with problems and in my opinion they just end up looking foolish doing so.  Thanks to the Vanguard for calling them out.

  3. SODA

    I believe we are lucky tht the fire chief has stuck it out despite the internal pressures he must be faced with every day. He is in my estimation an exemplary professional and leader and should be applauded and appreciated by the community.

  4. Anon

    Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.  Sometimes it is best to let an antagonist save face, rather than employ direct confrontation.

    In my view, Bobby Weist was permitted to have his say, everyone was aware of the background surrounding the issue of shared management, but all concerned (including Bobby Weist) conceded they have moved on from an argument over whether shared management is a good model to how it can be improved.  Obviously the right model of shared management is being implemented, and Chief Trauernicht is the right man for the job and is doing a superb job.

    I would also like to add that low morale in the Davis Fire Dept started long before shared management was an issue.  It had more to do with what was perceived to be an unfair promotional system and favoritism by the then Fire Chief.  I suspect old grievances about the promotional system and favoritism as well as union pressure are the true underlying cause of “low morale”.  We don’t really know if all the firefighters are truly behind the obstinance in opposing the new contracts offered by the city – we only know “the union” is opposed.  Just some food for thought…

    1. The Pugilist

      I think you’re point about the low morale is a good point.

      From my perspective I worry that Chief Trauernicht is under constant fire and at some point both he and the university will be fed up with it.

      1. Matt Williams

        Pugilist, when you say “is under constant fire,” who is that constant fire coming from?  Does the “constant fire” extend beyond Bobby Weist?  Does it extend beyond City Fire Department employees?

  5. Biddlin

    Should any of you have a house fire or other emergency, please take the opportunity to tell the folks saving your life and property how overpaid you think they are.

    1. Sam

      So because at some point someone in the community will need to a fireman for an emergency we should vastly overpay for that service? At some point I might need police services. Lets hire enough so we can have one on ever corner in town and pay them $300,000 per year. That would make Davis safer, right?

      It’s not that we don’t need firemen, we just don’t need $250,000 per year fireman. The University’s $120,000 firemen seem to work just fine. I would rather use the money for other things like roads and parks.

    2. Barack Palin

      Except for that happens to be their job.  That’s what, at least our Davis firefighters, are overpaid to do.

      Once again, if they don’t like their jobs and have low morale just quit, let someone else have the job that has a better attitude.

    3. The Pugilist

      Here we go again.  So we should pay firefighters $1 million, because obviously if my house is on fire and they are putting it out, they are worth that salary.  And if a doctor saves my life, he is free to charge me millions as well – by this logic?

      I don’t understand why we can’t separate the budget considerations from the valuable work performed.

    4. Matt Williams

      Biddlin said . . . “Should any of you have a house fire or other emergency, please take the opportunity to tell the folks saving your life and property how overpaid you think they are.”

      Bidlin’s statement could just as easily be applied to other public safety situations, for example, “Should any of you have a knife drawn on you on G Street or other emergency, please take the opportunity to tell the folks saving your life and property how overpaid you think they are.” 

      With that said, my question to Biddlin (and anyone else who wants to engage it) is, “Why does Davis value its fire public safety employees so much more than its police public safety employees?”

       

      1. South of Davis

        Matt wrote:

        > Why does Davis value its fire public safety employees

        > so much more than its police public safety employees?

        I don’t think you will get most people in Davis to say they “value fire public safety employees much more than its police public safety employees”.

        I’m pretty sure that Matt knows the answer to the question “why does Davis pay ts fire public safety employees so much more than its police public safety employees” is because the fire union did a better job than the police union getting cash for its members…

      2. Barack Palin

        Matt Williams

        “Why does Davis value its fire public safety employees so much more than its police public safety employees?”

        Matt, being that you’re running for city council I would hope that you already knew the answer to that unless you were asking somewhat tongue in cheek.  In other words, did you mean why do we overpay firefighters so much more for doing their job than we do other safety employees?

        1. hpierce

          Don… your cit, tho’ mainly accurate, is nowhere near the full picture… in previous recessions/’bad times’, Public Safety (Police and Fire) did better in compensation increases than other municipal employees… go back to 1977/78 as a “snapshot in time”…

          I make clear, I do not defend, nor support the current compensation discrepancies.

          Yes, Don, 2001 was a ‘watershed’ year… but if you look at how many (#’s or %’s) of NYPD either lost their lives, or suffered severe morbidity in 9-11, the FF vs. PD reactions as to compensation were not the same… not even close.

          Kills me to say this, but Frankly and others have this somewhat right.  Public Safety was traditionally (prior to Prop 13) somewhat under-compensated… no more, in aggregate… State-wide, Nationally, and locally, PS employees are generally more associated with traditional “unions” than other local, State, employees.  Teachers are usually “union” as well.

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