California firefighter union wants elected fire chief

SAN BERNARDINO, CA &#8211 San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters Local 891, the union representing 126 city firefighters, has introduced a ballot initiative proposing an elected fire chief.

In the last two years, 25 positions have been cut at the department and engine companies have dwindled from four-man crews to three-man crews, said Steve Brown, the union’s vice president.

While budget cuts factor into that scenario, union representatives say they are fed up with “politics as usual in San Bernardino.”

“Too often, the current administration at City Hall has injected politics into the management and operations of our Fire Department,” said union President Scott Moss in a statement Thursday.

An elected fire chief, Moss said, would remove the taint of politics from decisions affecting hiring, promotions and fire protection policies at the department.

A notice of intent to circulate a petition was filed with the city on Jan. 9, but the union has yet to begin gathering the roughly 12,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot, Brown said.

“We’re not even sure we’ll have our ducks in a row by November. It’s a work in progress right now,” Brown said.

The proposed charter amendment would establish an elected fire chief, to be elected at the 2014 general election, who would have complete autonomy in running the department, without interference by the mayor and city manager. In addition, the proposal requires the Fire Department to have an assistant fire chief and a chief of staff, appointed by the fire chief with the consent of the mayor and City Council.

Sixth Ward City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson said he is unaware of any municipalities in California that have an elected fire chief, and that only 4.5 percent of city firefighters reside in San Bernardino.

“Out of 179 fire firefighters, there are only eight that live in the city. That’s problematic to me,” Johnson said.

He doesn’t see the union’s actions as any different from the tactics employed by other local labor unions waging battle with their elected officials over pay and benefits cuts prompted by the dour economy.

“This is another attempt by special interest groups trying to take over a municipality,” Johnson said.

Conflicts between labor unions and the municipalities they serve is common, especially during tough economic times, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“Tight budgets mean political conflicts,” Pitney said. “The municipality needs to cut the budget and the unions need to protect their members, and something’s got to give.”

From The Contra Costa Times.