Road to Recall: “Red-circled” employees–experienced veterans or subversive cabal?

In 2007 the board of directors of our local fire departments–in the process of consolidating into the Coastside Fire Protection District–faced a difficult choice.

Fire service had been in disarray. In Half Moon Bay an outside fire chief, brought in to assess the situation, had written a damning report, saying “the Fire Prevention program is minimal at best and is in total disarray,” “Firefighters with very little experience are placed in positions of operating fire apparatus and many of the fire Captains have very little fire experience. It’s my opinion that someday something serious will occur, either a life-threatening injury or large fire loss due to this lack of experience,” and “Morale in the Fire Department is low resulting in a culture of lawsuits, grievances and excessive sick leave use…While there are many shining stars in the workforce, we have our share of firefighters who are unmotivated, disgruntled and well versed at throwing up roadblocks.” Essentially, fire service on the Coastside was one emergency call away from disaster. It was only a matter of time before the unthinkable happened–a death due to substandard response by the fire department.

[Download Chief Bonano’s Memo]

The two boards had been in near universal agreement on the need to farm out fire services to an outside contractor. But divisions arose after bids were submitted and Cal Fire, California’s state fire service, was selected rather than a rival proposal submitted by the City of San Mateo and supported by Local 2400, the dominant labor union in San Mateo County.

Although Cal Fire, too, was unionized, Local 2400 regarded it as a threat since Cal Fire paid lower wages, offered less generous benefits, and required employees to work more hours each week. Several fire board directors, especially those who were members of Local 2400 themselves or who had family members in the union, opposed Cal Fire from the start. A referendum, to reverse the board’s selection of Cal Fire and put the issue to a vote, was attempted and several firefighters participated, though their efforts were eventually denied by the fire board. A lawsuit was then brought, headed by sitting board member Doug Mackintosh and funded by Local 2400, attempting to force the board to accept the referendum, but the court rejected their efforts, agreeing with the fire board that the wording of the referendum was misleading to voters.

Though the selection of Cal Fire was made in 2006, it took until mid-2007 for the contract to be negotiated and signed due to the delays caused by the attempts to stop Cal Fire before they started.

Which brought the board to one of the most difficult–and, in hindsight, one of the most fateful–questions they would have to face. What to do with the employees?

The problem was seemingly simple. Cal Fire was cheaper than the existing standalone district and it was cheaper primarily because it paid its employees a lower salary, did not offer the gold-plated health benefits of the standalone, and required employees to work seventy–two hours a week (three days, including overnights) as opposed to fifty-six hour weeks at the standalone.

Many citizens think that firefighters are grossly overpaid and to debate which union pays the most or least or which has better benefits causes a great deal of frustration. But nevertheless, the choice the board faced was a tough one. These people, the firefighters and other staffers, were real people, with real spouses, with real mortgages. Whether firefighters in general are overpaid might be a valid question but it was not a question that was going to be decided by our little fire boards. The only question facing the boards was this: What was the honorable way to treat the employees?

Complicating matters was the recent history of the attempts to prevent the Cal Fire contract from being signed and the acrimony in the station houses and on the board itself.

Taking a hard line and cutting firefighter pay to Cal Fire levels might destroy a department already weak with deep morale problems. There might be an exodus of experienced employees and the district might lose people with an intimate knowledge of the Coastside and all its peculiarities. Divisions on the boards, in the middle of consolidating into a single board, would be exacerbated and might never heal.

On the other hand, preserving the current pay of veteran firefighters of the Coastside might cause jealousy among the new arrivals who were being paid less for the same job. It would also work to preserve in the ranks a critical mass of disgruntled employees amongst some of the red-circled employees, further complicating Cal Fire’s attempts to integrate their staff and culture with that of the Coastside.

In mid-June, 2007 a representative of the Half Moon Bay Fire Department signed the Transitional Memorandum of Understanding which created a new class of employees, the “red circled” employees, all former employees of the district. (Although it was not supplied to me by Cal Fire, it appears that a similar agreement was made for the employees of the Point Montara Fire Department).

[Download Transitional Memorandum of Understanding]

According to the terms of the memo all former employees who chose to stay with Cal Fire, either on the Coastside or at another location run by Cal Fire, would receive a four percent bump in salary which would then be locked in–“red circled”–and would remain at that level for however many years it took for Cal Fire salaries to catch up. Their health benefits would be bought out, as well, funded with a $1.5 million loan taken out by the district. In addition, the Cal Fire Chief, John Ferreira, promised to not transfer local employees.

According to one person involved in the negotiations at the time, and who supported Cal Fire, the decision to keep a core group of disgruntled employees working on the coast inside of Cal Fire’s organization, however honorable the intention “was, in hindsight, a terrible decision” and “probably a strategic error.” The hope at the time was that Cal Fire would bring strong management to the district and would be able to control these employees and, over time, sooth the tensions amongst the line staff and maybe even on the board itself.

It was not to be.

After his retirement Chief John Ferreira, testified in 2013 in a harassment case brought by Ari Delay, a former Half Moon Bay firefighter who was active in the failed referendum to prevent Cal Fire from coming to the Coastside. Delay claimed that being transferred to Felton, sixty minutes away instead of his usual thirty-minute commute, constituted harassment. Ferreira said he had good reasons for transferring Delay. In his testimony Chief Ferreira told the judge (Ferreira is “A” for “answer” in the testimony):

 

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And then later:

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[Download transcript of testimony and related documents from the Ari Delay case, 699 pages, 30 MB]

(Note: The judge in this case ruled for Ari Delay, saying that she was perplexed by Ferreira’s multiple reasons for transferring Delay and because Ferreira kept looking at his lawyers. The case is being appealed).

Despite the passing of the years and the raises which accrued to Cal Fire employees, many “red-circled” former HMB and Point Montara firefighters maintained a paycheck differential over their peers.

(Click to enlarge table.)

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[Download data chart is based on: My transcription of the data, and scans of the paper tables sent by Cal Fire]

Indeed, this differential was in many cases still substantial–as of 2011, the latest numbers provided by Cal Fire, almost $49,000 was paid to Chief Cole above the “Cal Fire equivelent.” This subsidy, paid for by the District above and beyond the amount of the Cal Fire contract itself, totaled just shy of $190,000 among those employees that chose to remain on the Coastside. (Our fire district still pays the red-circle differential to all former employees who remain with Cal Fire, even if they no longer work in our district. Thus the $190,000 figure is a lower boundary and may be significantly higher when these out-of-district employees are included. Information on out-of-district red-circled employees was not provided by Cal Fire.) To put that number in context, the $190,000 “subsidy” to red-circled employees would pay for one full-time and one half time firefighter, or pay for a new fire engine every three years, or go a long way toward building a new fire station for the coast.

Was the decision to keep the old employees on the coast and to pay them their former, higher salary and benefits, a good one? The Coastside rumor mill has long held that several of the former Half Moon Bay and Point Montara firefighters (not all of the red-circled employees but a subset of them) were actively working against Cal Fire from the inside, to subvert its performance in order to prepare the way for the return of a standalone department, or at least a shared services arrangement with a district run by Local 2400. Whether this rumor is true or not, Cal Fire Chief Ferreira, based on information available to him but not yet to the public, seemed to believe that something along those lines was true, as his testimony mentioned above shows.

But it is also likely that Cal Fire experienced something akin to what many people new to the coast experience, even those sophisticated about politics: A sense of shock at the intensity of the local political scene and surprise at the difficulties they faced trying to run a district with a history of pronounced internal strife stretching back years and years, a beautiful strip of seaside California with political discord seemingly written into its political DNA.

On Tuesday the voters of the Coastside will weigh in on this debate, one with its roots in small town politics but which now encompasses a larger scale battle of a state union versus a powerful county union. If the recall fails it is likely that Cal Fire will be not return, even should the politics change here on the coast, as it is a small district and perhaps not worth so much effort.

If the recall succeeds Local 2400 will have a difficult time in the future. According to CFPD board chair Doug Mackintosh, union “anti-poaching” rules kick in after five years, preventing outside unions–like Local 2400–from contributing substantial sums of money to unseat another union. If a new Cal Fire contract is signed those rules will be in force the next time a contractor is chosen.

The fate of the “red-circled” employees also hangs in the same balance. The Transitional Memorandum of Understanding which created the red-circled employee status expired on December 31st of last year. The anti-Cal Fire board majority has spoken often about offering former Coastside firefighters “incentives” to join their new department–echoes of the red-circle subsidy.

Cal Fire, on the other hand, is working beyond its last contract already and will require a new contract to continue, should the recall succeed. What lessons they have learned in their time here on the Coastside is anyone’s guess, although it is certain that lessons have been learned.

 

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