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Fire v. City: Breaking down the myths disguised as fact

Source: Vallejo Times Herald 9/30/07
This appeared as a My Turn column by Joe Athey


 Mr. Athey Says:   Letter writer Diana Lang's ("Next up: Economic torture," Sept. 23) "facts which can not be denied" is an unruly list of sloppy misstatements  Ms. Lang says the city won an unfair labor practice lawsuit against the union. In fact there was no lawsuit at all. The city has filed numerous unfair labor practice complaints against the union but it has not won any of them. And in at least one case the city's own attorney declined to testify under oath. As Mr. Bartee has pointed out in city council sessions, it is not that the firefighters have refused to negotiate. The city council decided for its own reasons, good or bad, to stop negotiations. And, oh yes, it demanded arbitration - and lost.

Comment 1

Mr. Athey Says: It is true that the city council has publicly "offered" to share the city's financial records with both the firefighters and the Chamber of Commerce. However, they have never done so - no doubt for very good reasons.

Comment 2

Mr. Athey Says: As Mr. Bartee pointed out on Dec. 19, the firefighters offered true salary cuts, an annual 5 percent cap on pay raises over the life of the contract, and true benefit cuts (as well as deferrals) which would have saved the city $6 six million over five years. So far the council has spent nearly half a million dollars on attorneys and consultants and has gained nothing.

Comment 3

Mr. Athey Says: Everyone knows that the city has a budget crisis. The question is what is the degree of the crisis, its cause and its timing. The financial crisis is definitely serious but the degree and appropriate response is unclear until the city really opens up its records. The ultimate cause is a city council that rode the housing bubble for 10 years until it burst, and was incompetent to pay what it promised not just in union contracts but in services to its citizens, and is now trying to divert attention from its own irresponsibility. The timing can be expressed in two words: Election year.

Comment 4

Mr. Athey Says: The biggest misstatement of all is that Vallejo spends 80 percent of its budget on safety services. In fact Vallejo spends about 9-10 percent of its entire city budget on safety services. It does, however, spend about 76 percent of its "General Fund" on safety services. Union opponents keep confusing the General Fund with the city budget either because they themselves have not figured out the difference or because they are misleading the public.

Comment 5

Mr. Athey Says:  Meanwhile, the piece written by Vallejo City Councilmember Stephanie Gomes ("A ruling that's a loss for all of Vallejo," Sept. 23) made me very sad because it reflects the process whereby the whole debate about the safety unions has become so emotionally out of control.

The outstanding problem with Ms. Gomes' "opinion" piece was its repetition that "the union has demanded the payment of a personal and frivolous lawsuit." Supporters of the council majority have raised this point repeatedly but they have the excuse that they may have been misinformed. Ms. Gomes, however, knows better. A look at the video of the city council meeting of Dec. 19 of last year will show that chief city negotiator and acting City Manager John Thompson had outlined the union offer in bullet points. Ms. Gomes tried to imply that the city was being asked to pay for Mr. Henke's legal fees. Mr. Thompson clarified Ms. Gomes' opinion by stating that there was "no direct linkage" between the $140,000 that Ms. Gomes was trying to connect with Mr. Henke's legal fees. In fact, he said, "everything related to those fees was removed" from the agreement. When Ms. Gomes kept trying to relate the legal fees to the monies, Mr. Thompson repeated that the monies were benefits paid "directly to employees," Ms. Gomes fell silent and the meeting proceeded.

Ms. Gomes may "feel" that she is right, she may want to believe that she is right, she may be passionate that right is on her side. But that does not change the facts as Mr. Thompson stated them. It is precisely this unrelenting urge to keep repeating feelings in place of fact that has made this whole conflict so ugly. It is time to stop.

Comment 6

Mr. Athey Says:  Twice now the discussion has reached the level of a fight in a children's playground and the city itself has called in "adults" to help calm things down - the City Gate Group and the arbitration panel. Both times the "adults" have sided with the firefighters, and still the council majority refuses to accept responsibility, 'fess up to their mistakes, and do the hard work of genuine negotiating.