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Fire fight erupts over ballot measure

Submitted by on 1, February 10, 2009 – 8:30 amNo Comment

Alameda firefighters’ proposed initiative to require a minimum level of staffing hasn’t hit the ballot yet, but the battle over it has already begun in earnest. The head of the firefighters’ union is accusing the city of playing politics with the measure, a charge the city’s top lawyer vigorously denies.

Here’s the sitch:

Before they can go out and get the signatures they need to put their measure on the ballot – a measure that would require the city to keep the department’s minimum per-shift staffing at 27, plus a supervisor – the firefighters need the city attorney to write a title and summary of the measure.

Election code requires the title and summary to be impartial. But the firefighters, who have submitted their measure to the city twice, are saying the stuff they got back – which is headed “Minimum Fire Department Funding” and offers background on the city’s requirement to bargain with its firefighters – was anything but.

“They sent us this title and summary that’s completely prejudicial, that’s argumentative,” said Domenick Weaver, head of the local firefighters’ union. He said the language will make it hard for him to get the signatures he needs to qualify his measure for the ballot and that he think it has little to do with what the measure actually says.

He said similar measures in other cities, including a recently passed initiative in Oakland, were fronted by much fairer language.

But City Attorney Teresa Highsmith said the language she’s provided is impartial and factual. “There is nothing argumentative about giving the community all the material information that they are entitled to when they are being asked to make a decision – this is consistent with this City Council’s policy of transparency of government,” she said in response to an e-mailed request for comment.

“Why wouldn’t the initiative proponents want the community to understand that the decision they are being asked to make will require funding?” Highsmith said. “We think the community is entitled to know all the information, including the cost implications, before they are asked to
make a decision.”

The union’s attorneys have threatened to take the matter to court if the city doesn’t rewrite the language to front the measure, which Weaver said he hopes to place on the ballot in November.

Here’s what the title and summary sheet says:

Minimum Fire Department Funding

Background. The City of Alameda is governed pursuant to a voter-approved Charter which establishes the organization of City government, by ordinances and resolutions of the elected City Council, and by policies adopted by the Council and other elected and appointed City officials. The Charter requires the City Manager to prepare for the City Council’s consideration, and council adoption of, an annual budget identifying available revenues and stating authorized expenditures for the fiscal year. The Charter authorizes the City Manager to determine staffing levels, equipment purchases and other administrative details, within the limits established by the City Council’s annual approved budget. The Charter also provides for the city to bargain with its represented employees on wages and working conditions and, as to firefighters, provides that any dispute regarding ages and benefits that cannot be resolved by negotiations between the City and the firefighters union must be submitted to binding arbitration, although an arbitrator’s award that is not acceptable to the City Council must be submitted to the City’s voters for approval.

The Measure. This measure would amend the City Charter to limit the authority of the City Manager and City Council by imposing minimum numbers of firefighters and fire equipment that must be provided for each year, regardless of available funding. It would also, to the extent permitted by state law, remove these minimum staffing and equipment levels from the scope of issues which the City may bargain with the firefighters union. It does not affect the authority of the Manager and Council to budget for other City departments or to negotiate with unions that represent non-Fire Department employees, to the extent that funding is available.

If the measure is approved by the voters and takes effect, the City will be required in every year until the voters repeal or amend the measure to provide funding for:

(i) at least 5 engine companies each comprised of a fire engine and at least 3 firefighters, at least 1 of whom must be an officer and at least 1 of whom must be a paramedic;

(ii) at least 2 fire truck companies each comprised of a fire truck and at least 3 firefighters, at least 1 of whom must be an officer; and

(iii) at least 3 paramedic ambulances staffed with only 2 firefighters, at least 1 of whom must be a paramedic.

The measure would also require the City to provide funding for a supervisory chief officer, who must be a uniformed firefighter on a 24-hour shift with authority to command the department, to be on duty daily.

The measure states that it controls over any other City legislation with which it conflicts, including other provisions of the City Charter approved by the voters, and any ordinance, resolution, rule or regulation adopted by the City Council or other City officials, but not over non-Charter legislation adopted by the voters.

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