The worst day in the history of the Davis City Council came 70 years ago this month.
On June 7, 1943, Mayor Calvin Covell introduced a resolution which urged the prohibition of Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens, who had been removed from the West Coast during World War II, from returning to California after the cessation of hostilities.
In the seven decades since, I know of no lower ebb for our Council than the night of Dec. 9, 2008. At that meeting a majority — Don Saylor, Ruth Asmundson and Stephen Souza — voted to bury a report by Bob Aaronson, the city’s ombudsman, which addressed problems in the Davis Fire Department.
Not only did those three — who together had received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions plus other support from members of the Davis firefighters’ union — not want to let the taxpayers and residents of Davis see what Mr. Aaronson had found. They decided no one on the Council should be permitted to learn its contents.
Theirs was never a vote of conscience. It was not a vote of practical or legal merit. It was not due to precedent. The vote was cast because those members of the Davis City Council had been influenced by all the money and favors Local 3494 had given them to win office.
You scratch my back. I’ll scratch yours. The city be damned.
It was just as telling that Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek, the two dissenters who voted in favor of unsealing the report, had won office despite the vigorous efforts of the firefighters to defeat them. They argued that if there were management and behavior problems within the DFD, the public and the City Council ought to know about them and ought to know what, if anything, would be done to correct those situations.
Yet for most of the last four-and-a-half years we were kept in the dark, only able to see parts of a heavily redacted copy, itself the result of a lawsuit against the city.
Last week, however, the redactions were lifted. Yolo County Judge Dan McGuire, ruling in favor of a blog called The Woodland Record, decided there was no reason the Aaronson report could not be fully unsealed. It is now open to any and all who choose to read it.
Although the City of Davis did not contest the Record’s suit, a third party, retired Fire Chief Rose Conroy, whose management of the DFD is addressed by Mr. Aaronson in the report, hired a lawyer and sued to keep the public in the dark. Fortunately, Ms. Conroy failed in her effort.
The reason Bob Aaronson was hired to investigate the fire department was that months before the Yolo County Grand Jury had issued a scathing report, alleging “that the DFD promotional practices were unfair; that certain employees were subject to retaliation or hostility for disagreeing with the chief or the union; that off-duty firefighters were misusing DFD facilities; that there was a poor relationship between DFD and the Davis Police Department; and that the Davis firefighters’ union has undue political influence in town.”
City Manager Bill Emlen, whose own management of Ms. Conroy was called into question, consequently asked Mr. Aaronson “to conduct an investigation into the allegations and charges contained in the 2008 Yolo County Grand Jury Report regarding the city of Davis Fire Department.”
No area of investigation received greater attention by the ombudsman’s report than the relationship between Chief Conroy and Capt. Bobby Weist, the longtime president of Local 3494. The underlying question was whether their cooperation led to outcomes detrimental to the department or to public safety.
Mr. Aaronson found instances of the former. However, he wrote that he “detected no evidence that the fire department’s service to the public has been impacted at all by these internal issues.”
The single most troubling situation discussed in the report was the promotion of Weist from firefighter to fire captain. The belief of many firefighters interviewed by Aaronson was that Weist did not merit his promotion and that a better candidate was bypassed by Chief Conroy due to favoritism.
The promotion process began with a three-part assessment of nine candidates by outside examiners. Of the nine, Mr. Weist finished in dead last.
The second assessment was done by the DFD’s division chiefs. They unanimously ranked Mr. Weist fourth out of nine.
The final review and interview was conducted by Chief Conroy.
Despite his poor scores, Conroy promoted union president Bobby Weist to captain. She also promoted the union’s vice president, who did well on his tests, to captain at the same time.
At the end of that process, a large number of Davis firefighters told Aaronson that Conroy’s decision was unjust and that a far better candidate was unfairly not promoted.
Had the Davis City Council not been influenced in 2008 by all the campaign money given to Saylor, Asmundson and Souza, they would have voted to look at the ombudsman’s report. And they would have found that Bob Aaronson bent over backwards to be fair to Chief Conroy and the firefighters’ union.
Alas, those members of the council never saw the report. They denied themselves and the public the right to know if there were, among other things, management problems in our city.
Fortunately, no one on today’s City Council was elected with that union’s donations. It is more evident than ever that taking money from groups who do business with the city of Davis is corrupt, and it leads to low points in our history.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column appears every other week. Reach him at [email protected]