Are Alameda’s Firefighters too Powerful to be Reformed?

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In the wake of last week’s deplorable drowning incident, Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore promised an open and transparent investigation into what happened. But since then, there's been nada from inside Alameda City Hall, KTVU reports, as criticism of Alameda firefighters intensifies. And if the power of political influence is any indicator, don’t expect the Alameda City Council majority to publicly criticize or demand reforms from the city firefighters any time soon.

Why? Because the Alameda firefighters’ union wields substantial political influence on the island. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a special interest in Alameda with more juice. Last year, for example, Councilwoman Lena Tam was accused of ethics violations after she leaked what critics said was confidential city information to the firefighters’ union. The union also was instrumental in ousting the last fire chief, David Kapler. Granted, Kapler deserved to be booted for fueling up his personal car at the city-owned pump, but he also was an outspoken critic of the firefighters' union, and it was the union that dropped the dime on him.

But more importantly, the firefighters’ union played a major role in shaping Alameda’s current political power structure. During the 2010 election, the union threw its full support, and cash, behind Gilmore’s successful mayoral bid and the winning council campaigns of Tam and Rob Bonta.

Gilmore
  • Gilmore
Campaign finance records show that the firefighters union was Gilmore’s largest contributor, pumping $10,000 directly into her campaign, while spending another $12,700 to help her win the mayor’s race and defeat Councilman Doug DeHaan. The union also donated $2,500 each to Tam and Bonta, who now with Gilmore, have formed a ruling three-vote majority on the council. The firefighters’ union also was Tam and Bonta’s largest campaign donor, records show.

In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see whether this new council majority, which arguably only exists because of the firefighters’ largesse, will go along with more proposed cuts to the fire department, particularly in light of what happened at Crown Beach. As previously noted, the Alameda Journal reported that Acting City Manager Lisa Goldman is recommending that the city lay off four firefighters and nine cops in an effort to help close Alameda’s $7.4 million budget deficit. That may not sound like a lot, but the Alameda police and fire departments are relatively small, and such layoffs, if they happen, will have a significant impact.

And so it remains to be seen whether Gilmore, Tam, and Bonta will agree to the layoffs, let alone a thorough and open investigation into why firefighters and police refused to even talk to Raymond Zack as he stood in shallow bay waters for more than hour, praying about whether to kill himself on Memorial Day.

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