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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Examination of the Use of the Union Hours Bank by the Davis Fire Department

One item issued forth in the investigation by Bob Aaronson that was not contained in the Grand Jury report was the issue of the Union Bank Hours.

The Vanguard had received an anonymous tip about the fire department usage of the union bank hours that alleged that they were using the hours for political activities. As we shall see, the use of union bank hours for political activities would be completely inappropriate.

The anonymous tip read:
"Check out Union Hour Bank and ask what Firemen are doing while on this time. The answer is Union stuff. Campaigning for Angelides, Against Prop 75, Serving and consuming alcohol for politicians, Electing R.Weist to CPF District President (The City sent 6 Firefighters to serve as Bartenders for this event) R.Conroy there as well."
Union Bank Hours and their usage is laid out in the city's MOU with the firefighters. From the city's MOU, here is how the union hour bank works:
"CITY agrees to deposit 24 hours per year ( on July 1, or first business day thereafter) for each participating Firefighter and Fire Captain for deposit in the Union Hour Bank. 70% of time use of Union Hour Bank time shall not incur overtime except with the approval of the Fire Chief. The CITY will provide to the UNION 30 day advanced notice on special training needs and UNION members agree not to schedule Union Hour Bank business during the identified special training. The CITY concurs that course selection and location is at the prerogative of the UNION and they shall provide 24-hour notice to the department for any Union Hour Bank absences. Absences will be charged at straight time. UNION agrees that total Union Hour Bank accrual and carry over shall not exceed two years worth of Union Hour Bank contributions."
The usage of the hours are also laid out in the MOU:
"The purpose of this Union Hour Bank is solely to provide educational training and development opportunities to UNION members and should not involve conducting or participating in other agencies' unions activities."
The Vanguard asked HR Director Melissa Chaney the purpose of these hours. She told the Vanguard that it was basically for the purposes of training and other union specific activities. She was further asked whether it would be appropriate for the union hour bank to be used for political activities. She told the Vanguard "absolutely not" and elaborated that all political activities must be performed off-duty and without the use of city money.

The Vanguard filed a public records request for the union hour bank time sheet. The Vanguard received a general list of how union hour were alotted and how much was alotted overall. However, as the response below explains, the city does not track the usage of these hours.

Here is the alottment of union hours that were used since 2004:

The Vanguard then turned over this information to the independent investigator for follow up.

In the report released by Bill Emlen, it is unclear whether there was annecdotal evidence to support the anonymous tip. We suspect much as the case in the issue of favoritism and retaliation that the investigator simply lacked the time and money to follow up on leads. However, the report is suggestive of a basic problem of lack of accountability.

Two findings in particular draw our attention.

This is from Bob Aaronson's report:
"Union members asserted that, for the most part, the union had complete discretion on how it chose to use/allocate these hours."
As Aaronson points out this runs against the city's MOU which very narrowly prescribes the intended usage for these activities as being "SOLELY to provide education training and development opportunities..." {emphasis added}.

Moreover, as our public records request indicates, the city does not have records on how these hours are used.
"As I understand it, the union does not maintain records of how these hours are utilized and the City has never requested an accounting from it."
The latter being a very consistent pattern within this city as to the lack of accountability and records keeping.

City Manager Bill Emlen writes:
"Because the current Fire MOU stipulates specific acceptable use of this time, the lack of a written record is problematic. Currently, all requests do go through the Chief but the process is strictly verbal. While there is no indication in the investigation that there has been improper use, the lack of a written record is problematic. Effective immediately and for audit purposes, the Chief will be required to keep written records of requests adequate to address the MOU limitations on Union Bank Hours. This information will be forwarded to the Human Resources Division to monitor purpose and hours usage. The City may also discuss union bank hours further during upcoming negotiations with the fire union."
Let us focus in on this sentence again:
"While there is no indication in the investigation that there has been improper use, the lack of a written record is problematic."
Again, this appears to be a case where the investigation simply was not able to look into potential allegations rather than a case where allegations were explored and refuted. This suggests that we really do not know if the union is improperly using city resources for political activity.

An indignant Chief Rose Conroy spoke at council to suggest that these hours are tracked--she said that she has to sign off on their usage and that they are tracked, she simply needs to now add the additional step of recording their usage.

With all due respect to the Chief, she has a very different definition of what it means to track the usage of hours than I do.

Even if the usage of union bank hours was completely appropriate--and frankly there is no indication that that is the case--this practice is problematic both on the part of the Chief for not meticulously tracking how city money is being spent and by the city's HR department for failing to account for the use of city money. This is a pervasive problem within the city that needs to change. There needs to be much greater accountability than we currently have.

---David M. Greenwald reporting