Vallejo's 2007 survey results showed that voters would not approve a tax to support public safety. Still, some council members insist that it showed the opposite that voters would have supported the tax.
Another oddity in the Vallejo Times Herald article was who did and did not believe survey results supported passage of the tax. Allegedly, City Manager Joe Tanner said last June 2007 that the poll indicated voters were strongly against any new taxes. Council members Tom Bartee and Erin Hannigan disputed him, saying their reading of the survey showed results different from what Tanner claimed.
As union head, Kurt Henke had a strong motive to report how Joe Tanner reported false survey results and mislead voters. However, the news article reported he said the survey showed the public had a high opinion of public safety and disapproved how the previously council majority handled the budget. He said that he gave survey copies to some council members. That is all folks, not even a hint of an attack on Tanner’s report of survey results.
The roles of the people in this drama seemed strangely reversed. Council members charged with promoting voters’ interests and supporting their city manager expressed what someone would expect from unions. Union head Henke makes a disinterested response of fact in the article.
Other comments credited to Hannigan and Bartee seemed out of character for council members representing residents’ interests. Hannigan said that after reading the survey "it shows there was an inkling the community would support a tax to continue services." Surveys report conclusive or inconclusive results and not vague inklings.
I suspect that Hannigan decided as I did the survey results showed that voters would not support a tax for public safety employee salaries. If so, she had a duty to share this conclusion with Vallejo residents who did not have the full report. Instead, she gave a vague answer that softened the blow to public safety unions’ negotiating position.
Hannigan also said that whatever support there was for a public safety tax was eroded by recent attacks on police and fire department salaries. This was strange statement for a councilmember to make about taxpayers receiving and discussing information about how public safety employees’ pay affects the city budget. Her comments show a preference that Vallejo residents vote a tax to support public service employees’ pay without discussing current salaries and budget conditions.
Council member Bartee said that Joe Tanner should have released the results of the telephone survey because taxpayers paid for them. This claim makes no sense except maybe to someone trying to undermine Tanner’s position and influence. Taxpayers paid for everything in every government file, but this does not mean they should have access to all of it. The untimely release of some information could work against the public’s interest, especially during contract negotiations.
I could understand if City Manager Tanner conducted the survey as a working document to help decide labor negotiations issues. Why would Bartee want to force the release of survey results to the public if he believed they showed voters were willing to pay more taxes? This information would give union negotiators advantage over city negotiators if they knew voters would vote a tax increase to meet their pay raise demands.
On the other hand, why would Joe Tanner release the survey results to union boss Henke now? It would make sense to do this if he knew the report showed that voters would not approve a tax and he believed this information would make union negotiators more compromising. If so, he misjudged some council members and Vallejo residents’ willingness to believe that up is down.
Two questions printed with the newspaper article convinced me that survey results did not show voter support for a tax for public service employee wages. The first question: "Maintaining fire, paramedic and police services in Vallejo should be top priority, even if it means raising taxes—70 percent of responders strongly or somewhat agreed." Considered alone, this answer supports a conclusion that Vallejo voters would support a new tax for public services.
However, another question followed. "The city doesn’t need more money; they just need to spend what they have more efficiently—71 percent strongly or somewhat agreed.
Combined those two answers say, "We voters agree public safety is so important we should raise taxes if the city needed more money to support it, but we do not believe it needs more tax money. It needs to spend what it has more efficiently." Voters were not likely to agree to pay more taxes for anything if they believed the city had enough money that it spends unwisely.
Reports during a Vallejo Council meeting revealed the city has not evaluated firefighters in years. This violates the city charter that calls for annual reviews. Clearly, city officials caved in to firefighters demands the city should not evaluate them without first negotiating work standards. What part of the employer/employee work relationship do city officials and firefighters not understand?
The city employs firefighters to protect residents against fires. It should decide the standard of the work it buys for residents. Employees meet those standards or they should look for work elsewhere. Rational workers do not expect to set their employer’s work standard and by extension their employer’s product or service standard. No business owners or managers would allow workers to seize this authority if they want to remain in business.
Firefighters made safety a major issue in their arguments against reducing staff during recent arbitration hearings. They promoted the idea that firefighting is such dangerous work the city must continue the current staffing levels to perform their work safely. However, nobody can judge the safety of firefighters’ work environment if they work without performance standards and work for years without performance evaluations.
One expects unions would have pressured the city to set its work standards for their members safety and certify compliance by work evaluations. I presume the fire chief and captains would conduct the evaluations. It seems that unions argue safety policy only when it serves their purpose.
The unions also convinced the city to repeal City Manager Joe Tanner’s policy against nepotism—city employees could not supervise a relative—until further negotiations. They claimed the nepotism policy threatens a strong tradition of family members working for the city, even in the same department according to the Vallejo Times Herald article. A city policy stopping this tradition that favors family members getting city employment is a good result. Families that want a tradition of their members employed in the same workplace should start a family business.
Do Vallejo residents see a pattern here? Union heads make something an issue for negotiation when the city exercises its authority in ways they disapprove. More pointedly, the city usually reverses the disputed policy and allows the union way to prevail until a negotiated agreement. What a sweet, compliant relationship for unions.
The city as a local government has certain power and authority not subject to compromise or negotiation. It should act on this presumption that its authority is supreme in disputes with employees unless a legal decision proves otherwise. However, Vallejo officials surrender this presumption of authority when they yield to unions’ demands for negotiation and when they allow unions to substitute their suggested policy until completion of negotiations.
Public safety departments and positions are important. Nevertheless, local and state officials need to evaluate old ideas and old approaches to providing this service. The current way is wasteful of money and talent.
For many years, I called the weed abatement office, in the fire department, to report high weeds that were a fire hazard. A response took weeks and sometimes months. One person patrolled the city inspecting, responding to complaints, issuing violation notices and following up. Meanwhile, firefighters in the various zones sat in their stations doing nothing.
Fire prevention should be firefighters’ responsibility even under the current system. They should patrol their fire zone for fire hazards and report them to the abatement officer for administrative action. They should even record illegal dumping. This would eliminate the city’s delay in addressing those hazards. However, current union contracts and state law often forbid this type sensible policy.
Cities like Vallejo need to redefine the firefighter position. It makes no sense for them to hire people specifically to fight fires and nothing else. The rate of fire calls does not warrant it. Before, towns and small cities relied on volunteer firefighters. The city needs to return to some form of this idea.
City employees could work other positions with a firefighter endorsement that brings extra pay. They could do their other work unless called to a fire. Some employees could be dedicated firefighters who staff the station, maintain the equipment, and patrol their areas for fire hazards. The city could keep EMT responders at the station if it did not contract out for this service.
Vallejo could include residents as volunteer firefighters in this system for evening and night duty. There might be the option of doubling the police officers on patrol with some of them having a firefighter endorsement to respond to fires.
Someone would have to work out the specifics of this new approach. However, we need new ideas and change at local and state government levels about public safety policy.