Monday Morning Thoughts: While We Hardly Knew the Chief, He Leaves an Important Legacy

Chief Daryl Arbuthnott speaking during the 2018 9-11 Ceremony

It has been a tumultuous decade for the Davis Fire Department to say the least.  Concerns about the impact of firefighter compensation lead to huge political battles to contain costs and rollback political influence.  The result was a series of reforms in 2013 and shared management which ultimately would prove unsuccessful.

And so after UC Davis ended shared management, the city in 2017, for the first time since Rose Conroy retired in 2010, would hire its own Fire Chief – Daryl Arbuthnott.

Daryl Arbuthnott was a 37 year vet and as he put it to me in an early meeting together, he believed in what he was doing, but he didn’t really need this job.  He could very well simply retire.

In a lot of ways, Chief Arbuthnott proved to be exactly what Davis needed.  He was a person who could bring people together and mend fences.  His goal was to rebuild the Davis fire service locally after a period of shrinking morale and cutbacks.

In a way he was the perfect mix.  He was a guy who rose up through the ranks that the rank and file could and did respect because of his background and experience.  On the other hand, he was not a guy who simply cater to the interests of the union.

As Union President Bobby Weist told me, there were times when they would sit down and while they often had disagreements, there was mutual respect there, he felt that was all he could reasonably ask for.

City Manager Mike Webb told me that he felt that Chief Arbuthnott accomplished a lot in a short time.

Unfortunately, for his many strengths, there were flaws in his approach.  Look no further than the fire standards of cover that were presented in late October.  The report, written by consultants Fitch  & Associates who performed the assessment, identified 13 recommendations for council consideration.

It looked at everything from performance standards to response time to the need for a strategic plan, to the need to have its own ladder truck, to the need to build new relocated fire stations.

“There will soon come a time when the City of Davis will need to invest in fire station replacements,” they write.  “Instead of rebuilding on the existing fire station sites, it is recommended that any new fire station and training facility be built at locations to best serve the current and projected service demands. New locations for the City of Davis fire stations would improve system performance.”

There are “several optimal fire station locations based on service demands and community development.”

The report was consistent with the vision that the chief laid out in private meetings with me as well.  As he put it, it was his job to recommend the best possible service for Davis and it was the job of the policy makers to figure out if this vision would work.

While he said the right things, the reality is that he really believed we needed these series of changes for the good of the community.  It is hard to argue with that standpoint, the problem is that Davis is not Los Angeles.  One of the reasons we had the cuts that we did is that the city coming out of the series of pay increases and the recession did not have the revenue to support some of these initiatives.

In addition, Chief Arbuthnott is a man who is nearing the end of his career.  He’s already in his fifties.  He has perhaps at most a five year time horizon to accomplish his goals.  While some of the recommendations in the Standards of Cover report are things that can be done relatively quickly – getting a latter truck is at best an intermediate goal and moving the fire stations is a long-term goal – if it is ever possible.

The bottom line is that a man with probably a five year time horizon has put forward a policy document that is likely twenty years from completion.  That is just not a good fit.

The move to Vallejo makes some sense.  Vallejo is increasingly interesting in its positioning.  As it emerges from bankruptcy, they have a lot of their contracts and debt now in order, it is well-positioned in the Bay Area to take advantage of an emerging economy and positioning to take advantage of that economy.

Of note is that they’ve just hired former Davis CIO, Rob White to head up both Planning and Economic Development.  He starts today.  On his way out of town, he told me that Vallejo has big ambitious to take advantage of its connectivity to San Francisco and its positioning in the Bay and will be looking to bring in the type of high tech commercial interests that Davis has been looking at.

Chief Arbuthnott can take advantage of their position as well to be able to rebuild a department that will have ample resources moving forward.

In short, Chief Arbuthnott leaves the department just 17 months after coming to it, in much better position than when he arrived.  While this is no doubt a short-term loss for Davis, I also believe that his areas of success point the way for the city manager to hire a replacement – someone who can earn the respect of the rank and file, while at the same time earning the community and council’s truth moving forward.

The key will be to find someone with those strengths who will be looking at the job not as a five year career ending move, but rather a longer term career path.  Someone who has the longevity to see through some of the changes that seem reasonable to make.

—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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  1. Matt Williams

    On November 15, 2018 the City issued a Press Release (see LINK) that announced the approval of a four-year labor agreement with the Davis City Employees Association (DCEA).  One of the key provisions of that agreement — a provision that, in spite of its cost, I fully support both as an individual and as a member of the Finance and Budget Commission — is that the new agreement provides salary increases to DCEA employees whose salaries were determined to be below the market for comparable jobs, based on a market study completed a year ago. With the implementation of the contract, all DCEA employees will be within 5.26% below the median.

    Chief Arbuthnot’s legacy, and the value of the consultant’s report would have been significantly greater if the recommendations of the Chief and the consultant would have included a similar market-study-based approach to adjusting firefighter pay.

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