11/5/07

Voters question high-cost public safety unions

As the city of Vallejo, CA awaits the outcome of protracted labor disputes - and long-stalled urban renewal projects aimed at pulling the city out of a decade-long slump - few would disagree that Tuesday's mayoral and City Council elections are the most critical in recent years.

Voters will elect a new mayor and three council members who could determine the city's direction in the coming decade. The election likely will decide whether the seven-member panel has a majority sympathetic or hostile to the unions - and from that vantage point, could determine how tax dollars are spent on public safety versus transportation, economic development and other services.

Four current or former office holders, including three with Vallejo council experience, are vying to succeed Mayor Tony Intintoli Jr., who is being termed out of office. Seven other candidates, including one incumbent, seek to win three of the remaining six council seats.

The three council members not up for re-election include two union supporters and one union critic. A win by two union candidates could reverse or relax the current 4-3 majority's firm hand against labor leaders whose critics say are defending contracts that are too costly.

The police and fire contracts, and the sway union leaders have over more than 70 percent of the $85 million budget, is not the only thing voters will have on their minds Tuesday. Questions about business growth, education, crime and services for seniors have also defined campaign forums. But the debate over whether to cut police and fire services in order to show that Vallejo can ill-afford its public safety contracts is the ultimate issue dominating this election.

Union critics hope to capitalize on what they see as a growing momentum for a tough stand against the union leaders. Those critics have cast the unions as bullies well-skilled at using the guise of heroism to extract contract extensions in exchange for salary concessions.

Union members and their supporters, however, hope voters see those critics as incapable of proposing new fiscal initiatives that might grow Vallejo's treasury so cutting vital services isn't necessary. Fueled partly by overtime pay, 70 police and firefighters earned more than $150,000 last year, according to city records. Critics point out that's nearly three times Vallejo's median annual income.

But union leaders say public safety employees are forced to work overtime because the city refuses to hire more police and firefighters to cover increasingly busy streets. Firefighters are routinely forced to be on duty for more than 90 hours at a time, they say, because Vallejo has cut the department's ranks to what firefighters say is an unsafe level.

Nearly a year ago, with a budget deficit looming, labor talks produced an agreement with the fire union that was unpalatable to three union critics on the council. Two other council members who helped craft the deal ended up joining them in voting for cuts last year instead of a contract extension in exchange for compensation concessions.

Then, in spring, when the new city manager announced Vallejo was facing a projected $9 million budget deficit, the five council members voted for even deeper cuts - this time in police ranks, too. The nearly $7 million in combined slashing has set off two arbitration battles that are not yet resolved.

To further complicate matters, City Manager Joe Tanner recently pressured Fire Chief Don Parker - seen by critics as the biggest fire union appeaser - to resign amid an investigation into the use of city payroll by fire union leaders. The union has already rejected what they suspect will be the investigation findings that several members inappropriately used union leave pay. (See related story)

Where they stand

Two mayoral contenders are polar opposites on the labor dispute, while the other two have been more temperate.

Three of the seven council candidates have been very vocal about the issue, while others, including those endorsed by the unions, have favored less strident remarks.

Vying to replace Intintoli are Councilman Gary Cloutier, former Solano County Supervisor Osby Davis, and former Councilmembers Pamela Pitts and Cris P. Villanueva.

Villanueva has raised the most cash, with about $58,000 in monetary contributions since January, according to the latest campaign reports. He and family members have loaned the campaign an added $51,000.

Cloutier has raised the second most, with nearly $55,000. Davis and Pitts reported raising about $51,000 and $49,000, respectively. None has outstanding campaign loans.

Cloutier, a lawyer once endorsed by the unions, is part of what the union perceives an enemy triangle that includes Councilmembers Tony Pearsall, who seeks re-election, and Stephanie Gomes.

Pitts, a businesswoman repeatedly endorsed by the police and fire unions, opposes the city's deep cuts and growing legal bills to enforce them. The three-time mayoral candidate has said Vallejo needs to focus on making money through attracting new business rather than reducing public service costs.

Davis and Villanueva are much less personally and politically involved in the dispute than Cloutier and Pitts. Though Davis, an attorney, has been more critical than Villanueva, an accountant, about the cost of public safety, both have talked about being a uniting force for changing the polarized political atmosphere.

Whoever takes the top council seat will mark a first for a Vallejo mayor, Cloutier its first openly gay, Davis or Pitts its first African-American, or Villanueva its first Filipino.

As for council candidates, Pearsall was joined by former Councilwoman Joanne Schivley and political freshman Lou Bordisso in dishing out tough talk about the unions.

During several public forums, the three have identified the safety service costs as why Vallejo can't pour more money into transportation, infrastructure and economic development.

Pearsall is a retired police captain seeking a second term, while Schivley, a one-time mayoral candidate and retired bank executive, is seeking a third term after being termed off the council for two years. Bordisso is a priest with the American Catholic Church.

The two union-endorsed candidates - insurance executive Erin Hannigan and downtown business leader Michael Wilson - have shied away from remarks critical of labor leaders, opting instead to stay positive about fulfilling Vallejo's potential as a leading Bay Area city that families should be proud to call home.

Still, both have acknowledged the city must strike a reasonable deal with the unions. The two say bringing new business to Vallejo is the key to rescuing its checkbook.

Hannigan, the daughter of former California lawmaker Tom Hannigan, and Wilson, an architectural firm's chief financial officer, have raised the most cash among competitors despite being first-time candidates. Wilson reported raising nearly $57,000, barely besting Hannigan's nearly $54,000, according to the most recent campaign figures.

The two more than doubled the cash taken in by their nearest competitors, the more experienced Schivley and Pearsall, who raised nearly $20,000 and $16,000 in cash, respectively. Bordisso came in last with less than $2,000 cash.

The final two council candidates - seniors advocate Darrell Edwards and Navy veteran Oscar Estioko - have been less forceful about the union issue, instead choosing to market themselves as unifiers focused on bringing business and development to Vallejo.

While Edwards, who has raised nearly $13,000 in campaign cash, has criticized the contracts as a drain on city finances, he and Estioko, who has raised nearly $6,400, have tried to stay above the fray.

(timesheraldonline.com)

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