The Davis City Council on Tuesday declared its support for the continuation of shared management of the fire department with UC Davis, but, in a conversation that often moved from the text to the subtext, passed a motion to have an outside entity – a truly neutral one – review how the current system is working.
City Manager Dirk Brazil declared “shared management is working,” and called it at least a modest “financial success” in his introductory remarks, before turning it over to Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht.
The conversation quickly shifted to Station 31, as Chief Trauernicht acknowledged the need for a “rebuild, for a movement of Station 31.” He said, while there is money for that because the money comes from North Davis impact fees, any use of that has to go to reducing response times and improving service to North Davis.
He added, “The one thing that I firmly believe is that Station 31 needs to stay in the downtown core. That is where the risk is. That is the highest call volume.”
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said, “I’m committed to the shared services model. I’m committed to continuing moving forward.” However, at the same time, she said, “I want management downtown.” She added, “I want citizens to walk in and sit down.”
Councilmember Swanson cited parking issues on campus and the cost of parking. She acknowledged that the program doesn’t have to be perfect from the beginning. “There’s always growing pains,” she said. “But that’s something that should be the ideal.”
She acknowledged that there are “rumors that by having this conversation there is a desire to uncouple everything. I want to at least make sure that for this councilmember, it’s not. This is all about level of services.”
For his part, Nathan Trauernicht responded that “there’s no issue for us being downtown.” In fact, when the original merger discussions occurred, there was talk about a plan to rent office space together. However, that comes down to fiscal priorities.
He added, “We do have free parking at Station 34 right now.” He also noted that fire inspection and two staff members on that are housed at City Hall right now rather than Station 31 or the UC Davis campus.
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs again expressed measured support for shared management.
“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.”
Union President Bobby Weist spoke during public comment. He argued the need to keep the central fire station downtown. He said, in terms of response times, “if that fire station were moved, that would be very detrimental to the downtown.”
He said, “I’d like to make clear, because I’ve been misquoted, the union’s been misquoted, we have never opposed shared management.” He noted about the past processes, “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.”
Councilmember Brett Lee expressed surprise at the narrowness of the study. “I’m a little nervous about what’s being described here, that we need to keep the downtown fire station and can’t make use of any of the funds that are for improving the response times.”
Brett Lee called for an outside firm to look at these needs. He said, “I’m a little skeptical of the need to remain exactly where we are with the Station 31.” He said that doesn’t mean we don’t need a newer and more modern facility, he just doesn’t believe it needs to be at that exact location.
He was skeptical of the parking issue, noting, “The reality is that downtown is a real pain in the neck to park in compared to UC.” He added, “Why would a regular person need to go visit the fire chief?”
He noted that they get emails concerned about the morale issues, but suggested “that can be true of any entity.”
Councilmember Lee is not opposed to an outside evaluation. He wants them to “not be pre-disposed to one direction or another.” He noted that Chief Kenley came in with the audit with a specific purpose – “I think he had one type of world view. The answer to that is not to get another entity which also has perhaps a world view in another direction.”
He wants a more objective and neutral evaluation. He said that he is very nervous of this current piecemeal approach.
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis noted that “there are things we tend to lose sleep about in this community, the good news is that fire and police are not two of them.” He said, “there is nothing fundamentally broken here.”
He took issue, however, saying, “I don’t want us to keep talking about the core competencies of the university.” From his perspective, he notes that hazmat (hazardous materials) at the county level relies on the university fire department to provide its services. He noted the thousands of lives on campus and the value of the property and the research that is protected from fire by the fire department.
“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.”
Robb Davis clearly supports an analysis of ways to optimize the location of the current downtown fire station given the need for its reconstruction. He also made it clear that any study should analyze the future direction of the fire department given the overwhelming shift to medical emergencies over fires in the city. He said, “I would welcome an independent analysis… that would be done by an independent entity.”
Rochelle Swanson agreed on the need for it to be a transparent process with council needing to be the one to make the call. “Considering the history of what’s gone on the last five years, I think an RFP needs to come back to us. We need to be making the decisions.”
She also suggested it needs to occur after the June election in order to depoliticize the process.
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.” He said his primary concern who is accountable to whom in this arrangement.
Dan Wolk pointed out that we are not talking about the success of the boundary drop, the MOUs, or the issue of personnel on a fire engine. That, he said, is a separate discussion. “We are talking about the management of our fire department.”
He said that he has seen an improvement of morale over the past year, but “morale is still low there (in the fire department).” He said, “I think we got an issue there.”
The mayor noted things like communication, or the fire management being located in the city rather than on the campus, as possible areas of concern. “Those are issues,” he said.
Chief Trauernicht responded, “I take your comments to heart certainly. We own certainly a piece of that.” But he noted, “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.”
Rochelle Swanson moved that there be an RFP process with a subcommittee coming back in July with a cost assessment, assessment of fire services and a report on possible locations for facilities.
The motion was passed unanimously, belying what appears to be a slightly below the surface large gap in the view of the current situation.
—David M. Greenwald reporting