Thursday, July 24, 2014

When union money corrupted the Davis City Council


From page A4 | June 26, 2013 |

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


Discussion | 7 comments

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  • Rich RifkinJune 25, 2013 - 7:33 pm

    "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." ...... For reasons of space, I did not mention that the first lawsuit to unseal the Aaronson report was brought last year by the Davis Vanguard. The city of Davis did not oppose. However, a third party, the Davis Professional Firefighters Assn. (Local 3494), sued to have the report kept sealed. A compromise settlement was agreed to by the court, which resulted in a heavily redacted version of the Aaronson report being made public. The lawyer for the Vanguard, Paul Boylan, later also reprsented the Woodland Record in its case. Because the Record won, it is likely that Rose Conroy will be responsible to pay Mr. Boylan's legal fees in the case brought by the Woodland Record. In the earlier case, brought by the Vanguard, the court required Local 3494 to pay Mr. Boylan's fees. I am not sure of the full amount, but I believe it was somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000--a heft amount of money. And that raised the question (I am told) among many Davis firefighters who wondered why Bobby Weist fought against the Vanguard's lawsuit. It ended up costing them all the money they paid their attorney and the fees of Mr. Boylan, but the unsealing of the report never stood to harm the union so much as it harmed the reputation of Mr. Weist.

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  • Jim FrameJune 26, 2013 - 9:30 pm

    I ran into Stephen Souza downtown today, and he told me (in response to comments I made on the Vanguard) that all 5 council members had read at least a redacted version of the report prior to the council vote. He also said that Bill Emlen made the unredacted version available to read. If that's the case, was the vote really about making the report public, i.e. if the council formally received the report, it'd have to be made available as an agenda attachment? I can't square Stephen's statements with the notion that they voted not to allow themselves read the report.

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  • Rich RifkinJune 26, 2013 - 10:46 pm

    "All 5 council members had read at least a redacted version of the report prior to the council vote." .... It was a summary report written by Bill Emlen. However, it turns out there was a very serious problem with Emlen's summary: It left out and thus covered up most of the serious problems that Aaronson found, and it failed to give the flavor of the favoritism and unfair treatment that many firefighters believed that Chief Conroy was practicing. Moreover, it failed to quote Rose Conroy's words regarding her critics in the department, where she says they have 'mental issues' and that is why they were dissatisfied. ...... "Souza also said that Bill Emlen made the unredacted version available to read." ...... That is not true. In the public debate on Dec. 9, 2008, Lamar Heystek made it plain that they were never allowed to see Aaronson's work: 'It is important for us to see the work product of the Ombudsman, this is the first major test of our Ombudsman and we've paid over $35,000 I believe for this work product, and I believe I deserve to see, as a councilmember, the contents." They never saw the contents. The corrupted majority of three denied that. ...... Stephen Souza said that night that he was happy with a summary: 'I don't need all fifty pages, I just don't.' ....... Souza and Don Saylor argued that they were satisfied with seeing Emlen's summary and that it was not their job to see what was going on in the DFD because the Council does not hire or fire DFD personnel. The error in that argument is that the Aaronson report made it plain that Emlen was not properly managing the Fire Chief and that there was probably good cause to fire her for her inappropriate and inexcusable promotion practices which Aaronson detailed. But Emlen's summary was designed to make it look like all was fine in the DFD, and thus the Council would have no basis to doubt his management practices or those of any of his subordinates. ...... Ultimately, of course, it was not Bill Emlen who did not want the Aaronson Report seen. It was Bobby Weist and Rose Conroy. And not surprisingly, those two fought both of the lawsuits--Weist got his union to pay for the first one; and Conroy paid herself for the second one. The reason they did not want the truth to come out was because they feared that they would look bad. And, in fact, they do look bad in some respects. Yet in other respects, Aaronson is highly complimentary of how successful Weist has been as the leader of his union and he praises Conroy over and over for much of her management of the department. But they were too scared to let the public decide. They had it in their heads that Aaronson was up to no good. And so they made it clear to Ruth, Stephen and Don to quash the report.

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  • Noreen MazelisJune 26, 2013 - 1:29 pm

    ". . . Because the Record won, it is likely that Rose Conroy will be responsible to pay Mr. Boylan's legal fees in the case brought by the Woodland Record. . . ." Let's hope that this will be the case.

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  • Thanks RRJune 26, 2013 - 5:15 pm

    Maybe when the City of Davis, like Stockton, has to file bankruptcy because of the firefighter's excessive contracts, the council will do what they should have done years ago.

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  • RCJune 27, 2013 - 8:44 am

    Stockton compared to Davis lets be real! If you want to look into Stockton and the reasons it went bankrupt check out what the RDA did in that city. Oh and it was run by our City Manager!

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  • Rich RifkinJune 27, 2013 - 12:33 pm

    Some of Stockton's problems are different from those we have in Davis. However, the fundamental problem in Stockton is exactly the same as the fundamental problem in almost every city and in every county in California today. To wit, revenues into municipal governments have grown on average 2.5% to 3.5% per year (higher during the bubble, lower during the recession) for the last 20 years. But over those two decades, the total cost of labor has grown from 7.5% to 10% per year. Labor costs inflated so fast due to unsustainable increases in salaries, unsustainable inflation in medical benefits for current employees and retirees, and skyrocketting increases in pension funding (due largely to new, higher pension plans). Virtually all cities and all counties are in very serious trouble as a result. Most have not filed for bankruptcy. But they have done so only by accumulating incredible levels of debt. Yolo County, for example, now has debts of $583.2 million, just for unfunded pensions, medical and road maintenance. All of that debt was built up since the 1999-2000 fiscal year. That debt sits on top of the counties bonded debts for its buildings and other infrastructure projects. And it must be emphasized that there is nothing unique about how bad off Yolo County now is. Every county in our region, and I believe most in our state, is in the same situation. And likewise, most of California's cities are heavily indebted, due to the uncontrolled increases in labor costs since roughly 2000 or 2001.

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