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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Commentary: This is a Lesson of Accountability

Throughout the City Council election the lesson was one of "the cost to live in Davis" for the taxpayers. Throughout California public safety salaries and pensions are putting increasing strains on city budgets. However, the chief lesson that we can take away from the grand jury report is not primarily a fiscal lesson. That lesson we already have learned and understand that lesson to some extent.

The lesson to be learned from the Yolo County Grand Jury report is what happens when there is no accountability. What happens when there are no checks and balances in place. I have always been a strong union supporter. The reason for this is that unions advocate for their employees. The reason we have things like 40 hour work weeks, vacation time, medical leave, health insurance and other benefits, minimum wage, and many other protections in place for workers is because these things were fought for--sometimes with real blood and real lives. Management would send in police and mercenaries to physically attempt to break strikes and break the back of labor. Even today, I watch what government employers attempt to do to government employees, and without strong union representation, many of these employees would have little recourse.

At the same time, there is a separation between the employees and the employers. The idea of collective bargaining is that two sides with disparate interests sit down at the bargaining table and hammer out an agreement mutually beneficial to both sides. In the case of government unions, management represents in part the taxpayers interests.

What we see in Davis is the problem when the management side breaks down. That wall of separation does not exist. The Grand Jury report underscores this in two ways. First, they site the relationship between the Fire Chief, i.e. management, and the union. Second, you have a political body that is again, supposed to provide some kind of overseer role here, but that has been torn away by the strong political organization developed by the union, which has spent a tremendous amount of money to elect people friendly to their interests. In fact, they are the only union in the city that goes to such lengths and as a result, the City Council effectively has provided no oversight or accountability to the fire fighters over a period of years.

With little in the way of oversight or accountability, the outcome is fairly predictable.

We are not surprised to see inconsistent promotion practices nor are we surprised that people who are in leadership positions in the union receive preferential promotions over people not in the unions. No one is providing leadership here and no one is stepping up to stop it.

The Grand Jury report then cites a hostile work environment. We see complaints normally by unions of hostile work environments often with union members receiving discriminatory treatment by management. We see this by supervisors in all walks of life. But in this case, the situation is reversed. People not in the union, people who are critical of the union, those who speak out against the union, are in fact singled out here. And the report goes on to tell of numerous stories. Not just if they speak out against the union, but also if they speak out against the Fire Chief.

Because of this arrangement, we see the appearance of undue union influence in city elections. Nearly every firefighter donated to the city council campaigns. The DFP were the only city employees to donate to city council campaigns. The report suggests in part this was due to pressure from the union on their employees.

All of these very serious problems can be traced back to a lack of oversight. Neither the Fire Chief nor the Council Majority has stepped forward to take a leadership role here and therefore the power of this particular union has been largely unchecked in Davis for many years. There are no consequences to their actions. And from what I understand, the Grand Jury report itself is simply the tip of the ice berg.

The history of such Grand Jury reports suggests that not much will change as the result of this report. It will be interesting to see the response of the Fire Chief, City Manager, and City Councils. It is unclear whether those will be considered public responses or if this is considered a personnel matter protected by confidentiality laws.

What is clear is that the general public is probably not going to even be aware of this. While the Woodland Daily Democrat had a full story on the Grand Jury report as it pertained to Woodland, particularly the Woodland Schools, and posted the report on their website, the Davis Enterprise did not mention it at all. Without local newspaper coverage of this report, the city is free to go about with business as usual, and this pattern will continue.

The single biggest problem I have seen in my nearly two years of covering issues in Davis and Yolo County is that there is little accountability for most actions. Those in power simply continue to try not to rock the boat. And the result is that these things continue to happen until and unless there is enough public uproar to force a change. And it is not limited to the city. How long did people like Tahir Ahad continue to get away with abuse of public trust? Far too long. It cost DJUSD a lot of money. And, very rarely are there ever consequences to be paid. Unfortunately, that was not an isolated incident.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting