Commentary: UCD Pullout of Shared Management Opens Up Fire Chief Position to a Political Fight

Chief Trauernicht, UC Davis Fire Department
Chief Trauernicht at a Davis City Council meeting in 2016

In 2013, with the old council led by Mayor Joe Krovoza and City Manager Steve Pinkerton still in charge of the management of the city, there was a prolonged battle between the city and city council and the Davis firefighters’ union.  While the council was unanimous about adjusting response times and boundary drop, the battles were over fire staffing and shared management.

Both disputed changes eventually passed on divided 3-2 votes, with Dan Wolk and Lucas Frerichs eventually opposing both changes to fire staffing as well as shared management.  In response, there were protests by the firefighters, failed attempts to foment citizen response, work slowdowns, PERB (Public Employment Relations Board) complaints, and other attempts to undermine council efforts.

After three years of shared arrangements, management at the university has apparently had enough.  And while citing changes to PERS (Public Employees’ Retirement System) rules regarding pensions for shared management employees, the university also cited that “significant challenges have remained in managing two different fire departments with different cultures under single leadership.”

The city, now in need of a new chief, is acting fast – they have put an item on the agenda with a resolution for approving the classification of a fire chief in the salary range of $134 to $163 thousand.  The city may be limiting their pool with that range, and probably should have an outside firm evaluate the appropriate salary range for a fire chief.

“As I said on Wednesday, I am disappointed that the vision cast several years ago will not come to be in the near term,” Mayor Robb Davis told the Vanguard. “However, I recognize that sharing of services between partners is a challenge for any number of reasons. I also recognize that this effort, in particular, has been met with challenges at nearly every turn.”

For Mayor Davis, he sees that shared services would take time to yield savings, but he thinks that they are a critical piece for how the city will provide service into the future.

The university provided two reasons for seeking an end to this agreement. They wrote: “The recently published ruling by CALPERS about retirement contributions for shared management employees is of great concern. Further, as we have discussed on many occasions, differences in organizational cultures present material challenges that affect continued forward progress towards our joint vision. We believe that the success of both fire departments requires moving forward under independent management at this time.”

The CalPERS issue is a legitimate issue.  But, as Mayor Davis points out, “The CALPERS ruling came as a surprise to everyone, and while the full impact of it has yet to be fully understood by most, the potential harm posed to employees of shared management is one that clear and understandable.”

But, like the Vanguard, it is the second issue – the question about differences in cultures – that stands out for him.

He told the Vanguard, “It is the second issue that causes me the most concern moving forward: ‘differences in organizational cultures’ implies that there are unbridgeable differences between our two organizations.”

This is the issue that we have been hearing for several years now.  While it is has been some time since the union leadership at the fire department has spoken with the Vanguard, some of their surrogates and supporters have suggested that they did not see the university as the appropriate venue for housing a fire service.  There have been implications that the university has a mission for education, not local governance or public safety.

There have also been indications that they did not see Chief Nathan Trauernicht to be legitimate as a fire chief.  And as the Vanguard reported a couple of years ago, there were multiple and active efforts to undermine his authority and this relationship.  It is troubling that they would be allowed to succeed.

Mayor Davis, for one, rejects the notion that there are “unbridgeable differences between the two organizations.  He told the Vanguard, “I don’t believe that is the case and, thankfully, we all agree that critical changes such as the boundary drop and participation in regional training, as two examples, are positive steps and must continue.

“So wherein, then, lie these ‘differences’ and what do they mean in terms of our city’s ability to partner with other agencies to achieve public safety goals across our region?” he asked rhetorically.

He responded, “It is not uncommon for concerns of the heart to stand in the way of the logic of the mind.  Most likely the issue is as pedestrian as the human desire for predictability and fear of change in our environment/routine.  I fully recognize that this endeavor was a big change, but we no longer live in an insulated world, and all our practices—regardless of profession—must be open to reevaluation.  Partnership is the future,  and it is my hope that the City of Davis will be seen as a faithful partner in the days ahead.”

Unfortunately, I have to go further than the mayor.  I think this is more that the human desire for predictability and the fear of change.  This is a power play by the firefighters’ union and, in particular, their president.

This is the second agreement between the city and university over fire that has failed.  The first one, a merger, was paused due to stark salary differences.

There has been the stated desire to move the chief back to Fifth Street and off campus, and the university probably is fed up with trying to deal with this problem, one that is not of their own making.  They had an added excuse with the PERS ruling and jumped on it, in my view.

Mayor Davis seems more optimistic than me about the future.

He said, “Despite this ending, I look forward to learning about how we can make our Davis Fire Department the model for the entire state going forward.  We are now afforded the opportunity to undertake a full re-evaluation of our fire service in the City.”

He added, “With over 80% of all calls related to medical needs, it would appear time to ask the question whether our current organization represents the fire department of the future, or that of the past.  I fully expect our City Manager to bring on leadership that will help answer that question; leadership that will advance the good work that has already been accomplished between the two departments, and that will seek partnerships at every turn.”

That may be, but at this time, I don’t see this council relishing a battle against the firefighters’ union, as the council faced in 2013.  The path of least resistance will be to make a safe hire from within – for someone who either has the active backing of the union, or at least someone the union will not resist.

That would be a mistake for the city, but, given the magnitude of other issues, this is one issue that the council would understandably want to remove from their plate.

The Vanguard would prefer an alternative process.  Hire an outside consulting firm to set the position’s cost parameters and do a full external search to find the best leader that can move us forward.

—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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11 thoughts on “Commentary: UCD Pullout of Shared Management Opens Up Fire Chief Position to a Political Fight”

  1. Tia Will


    I am in agreement with you about the optimal process for selection of our next fire chief. I am also in agreement with Mayor Davis that partnership is the future. However, the partnership approach can only work when there are people of good will on both sides. I have long been a strong supporter of unions. However, it is my belief based on his past actions that the current president of the fire fighter union is not much disposed towards partnership and instead would prefer a model in which he holds the majority of the power and is free to establish “cooperation” on his own terms. This, I do not believe that our city leaders should allow to occur.

  2. Jim Frame

    The city, now in need of a new chief, is acting fast – they have put an item on the agenda with a resolution for approving the classification of a fire chief in the salary range of $134 to $163 thousand.  The city may be limiting their pool with that range

    On the other hand, Trauernicht made about $143k in 2013, before he moved up to managing both departments.  If you COLA that up by 3% a year that would put him around $157k now.  So offer him $163k to jump to the city.


    1. Matt Williams

      There is an old saying in basketball, never up, never in. 

      If the City was able to successfully hire him away, they could then offer his services on a contractual basis to the University.  The economics would be the same for both entities (a sharing of his salary), but the PERS issues would be eliminated.

      1. Howard P

        Interesting concept… was the PERS issue solely about him, or did it include ‘rank and file’?  If it went beyond him, that might be a ‘good’, but unproductive concept…

  3. Jim Frame

    That seems pretty unlikely

    As unlikely as UCD hiring City Manager John Meyer away?

    The advantages of getting Trauernicht are that he’s both an insider and an outsider, and is well-respected by those without a self-interested ax to grind.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Jim: I would venture to say there is zero chance that Trauernicht would apply for that position. It was his treatment by the union that I believe to be a huge precipitating factor in the split.

        1. PhilColeman

          Can I disagree with both of you? We’ll call these “alternate facts” of you want.

          Chief Trauernicht is not naive, nor is he a dummy. He knew exactly what awaited him when he agreed to be point of the speak in this merger. Who would know more about the fire department political culture than him?

          The DFD Union went full-force against him and the city. They wanted to continue to run the fire department and regain control of the majority council.

          The lame vote-of-no-confidence, that stupid letter that none of the politicals want to be reminded of, the public demonstrations, the door-to-door campaign, the union predictions of doom with the meager, the failed effort to get support from the State Legislature, and then the best one of all; academia is not qualified to create or administer a fire department. Result? A total beat-down of the union and its handful of supporters.

          Trauernicht tossed the baseball equivalent of a perfect game. The culture has been changed in the Davis Fire Department. When’s the last time you’ve heard those wearisome rants from Bobby Weist? That alone is a million dollar blessing.

          Were you to double his salary and bring Trauernicht eastward a few blocks, he’d be the best purchase in the history of the City of Davis.

  4. Howard P

    The path of least resistance will be to make a safe hire from within – for someone who either has the active backing of the union, or at least someone the union will not resist.

    Think electricity… hold a copper rod, buried 2 feet in the soil (saturated, as it is today) in one hand, grab hold of another 100 feet high, in open ground, when thunderstorms are forecast, with wet bare feet…

    The ‘path of least resistance’ can shorten your life considerably… not a good approach…

    Yet, the fire chief is an ‘at-will employee’… maybe you have something there…

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