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