FIRE MEASURE PUSHED TO 2011
The battle over the firefighters’ minimum staffing initiative took another twist Monday night when the City Council voted, 4-1, to wait until November 2011 to put it on the ballot – the last possible date it could choose to put the measure before voters.
Council members – some of whom stated unequivocally that they disagree with the measure – said they want to wait to see how the state’s finances and the city’s own retiree benefit costs shake out before the measure hits the ballot. They decided not to take action on a proposed companion measure that would require the council or voters to find a way to fund the measure’s mandates if it passed.
Councilwoman Lena Tam, who cast the lone vote against the 2011 date, said she thought the measure should go on the ballot next June. She said that should give the council enough time to get the information it needs and to work with the firefighters on finding a way to pay for the services the measure would require.
Representatives of the local firefighters union, who had anticipated their measure being on the ballot this November, said they were disappointed with the council’s decision. They said they had hoped city leaders would sit down with them to collaborate on a funding source for fire staff.
The decision came after a virtual Alameda who’s who turned out to oppose the special election that would have been required to put the measure forward in November, and to oppose the measure in general.
The speakers, who included the heads of three local business groups, former City Councilman Hadi Monsef, newly appointed Planning Board member Lorre Zuppan and Recreation & Parks Commissioner (and Alameda Education Foundation president) Bill Sonneman, said the city can’t afford to pay the cost of a special election for the measure, which would be the only thing on the November ballot (after developer SunCal delayed plans to place its own measure to develop Alameda Point on at the same time).
The election would cost upwards of $400,000, and the staffing requirements the measure would implement would run about $4 million a year, according to city staff. Firefighters union president Domenick Weaver disputed those figures, saying a mail ballot could be done for a fraction of that cost, and he also questioned the city’s estimated staffing costs.
“You do have the discretion to push it off, to not have a special election. I think that’s the way to go,” Sonneman said.
But others said the city’s leaders need to ensure they have adequate fire staff on duty.
“I’d emphasize that a critical part of both the hospital’s and the fire department’s ability to deliver high-quality services for our community is adequate and appropriate staffing levels,” said Rob Bonta, who sits on the board that oversees Alameda Hospital.
The council’s vote was the latest in a long-running battle between city leadership and firefighters over the department’s staffing that has seen minimum staffing levels drop from 27 last year to as low as 21 this year. Firefighters collected the signatures of nearly a quarter of the city’s registered voters to place the measure on the ballot, but the city sued to try to stop it (the council decided Monday night to drop the suit).
Council members said they want a better idea of where the city will be at financially before putting the measure on the ballot – and they want the chance to relay that information to voters. And some said they disagree with the measure outright.
“I don’t believe in the companion measure,” Councilman Frank Matarrese said. “I believe in a competing measure, because I don’t think staffing (requirements) should be in the city charter.”