by Aryn Plax
photography by Janelle Kluz
It was Feb. 5, 2018, and the La Verne City Council Chambers had every seat filled filled, with people standing in the aisles and flowing out the doors. It was a contentious gathering; the City Council members were poised to vote on the elimination of three engineer assignments and to replace them with three firefighter positions. The La Verne Firefighter’s Association, a union that represents captains, engineers and firefighters of the La Verne Fire Department, utilized social media to mobilize the community into attending the meeting, in hopes of persuading the council members to vote against the measure. After lengthy input, the city voted for the elimination as a cost saving measure; each engineer assignment eliminated saves the city $30,000.
Fire Chief Pete Jankowski came up with the suggestion for the change measure. However, opponents say the chief’s proposal was politically motivated. Andrew Glaze, president of the La Verne Firefighter’s Association, says that the elimination was just one of the ways that the chief and the city retaliated against LVFA for voting “no confidence” in an attempt to oust Jankowski. The LVFA is now suing Chief Jankowski and the city of La Verne for retaliating against them. The vote for no confidence is one of the few tactics LVFA can weaponize, since unlike ordinary unions, LVFA has made a pact with the city that it cannot go on strike.
In the personnel complaint against Jankowski, filed May 8, 2017, LVFA said that Jankowski ignored requests to replace broken and old fire hoses, test breathing equipment that requires testing every five years, replace a failing electronic patient care reporting system and terminate a poorly suited probationary firefighter. The complaint also says the chief delayed his decision to purchase a $1.3 million firetruck. The city did not investigate Jankowski or even put him on probation, according to Glaze. “The fire chief started retaliating against us, like writing up people for nonsense, starting investigations, doing everything in his power to make us miserable, and to make it a hostile work environment,” Glaze says.
Bob Russi, La Verne city manager, says that the replacement of the engineer/paramedic positions to firefighter/paramedic positions at Station 3 was due to the lack of a fire engine, as engineers drive them, not firefighters. Russi says Chief Jankowski proposed to the City Council to fully staff Station 3 on Esperanza Drive. “The City Council looked at it, and the cost was prohibitive; it was going to be roughly $600,000 a year, ongoing,” Russi says. “We can’t support that ongoing. So, at this moment, if we find other dollars—there’s another way to support that—OK, but we have other priorities that we need to focus on, other than staffing that.” Nevertheless, Andrew Glaze says that the La Verne Fire Department has tried to get an engine at Station 3 for 11 years. The Department placed an engineer at Station 3 and planned to put a captain there. The absence of an engine was then used as an excuse to eliminate the engineer position, Glaze says. “We’re calling it a retaliation because we know that the plan was to get an engine up there this whole time. And now that we’ve done the vote of no confidence, he’s basically stabbing us in the back by sabotaging the plan to get the engine up there. It’s a service reduction.”
The cost-saving measures proposed by Chief Jankowski—cutting an engineer position and cutting firefighters’ pay by 10 percent—is part of a larger three-year plan to save money, so that the city can pay off its obligations to CalPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System). According to a salary chart supplied by Russi, effective Dec. 24, 2017, a firefighter makes anywhere between $66,112 and $80,360, while a fire engineer makes between $77,368 and $94,041. The city’s current obligation is $49.2 million, and after issuing a 30-year pension obligation bond, the city will pay a total of $90 million—accumulated interest included—over 30 years.
Glaze says retaliation against the union began when the LVFA’s Political Action Committee (PAC) supported both Keith Garwick for his spring 2017 campaign for city council and Tim Hepburn in the mayoral race. Hepburn was the first person to challenge Mayor Don Kendrick in eight years. Hepburn campaigned that he would keep his mind open to contracting outside services, while Don Kendrick, mayor, and Robin Carder, then incumbent city council candidate, were vehemently against it. “It’s illegal for them to retaliate against us for our political activity.”
During a candidate forum Feb. 16, 2017, Kendrick was asked why he did not get endorsed by the Fire Association. He said that the Fire Department’s lack of support for him was related to a contract that the city imposed in 2013 related to portions they were paying into retirement. David Bonnano, an engineer paramedic and association member who signed the vote of no confidence, says that the union’s endorsement for the non-incumbents was unrelated to the 2013 contract. He says that Carder said she was “furious” that Kendrick made those statements on her behalf. CalPERS started demanding more money from small cities like La Verne after its conservative investments made at the start of the recession resulted in almost no returns—a consequence of CalPERS losing money, says Glaze.
Rather than cut the engineer positions, Glaze had an alternate solution: request a feasibility study to see how much money would be saved if La Verne contracted with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. This feasibility study, says Bonnano, could cost between $15,000 and $30,000. The city denied the request. However, the financial director/manager of San Dimas told city workers that contracting with LA County would save more than $1 million a year, Glaze says. Russi says that the number of $1 million was thrown out as a hypothetical number in a hypothetical situation.
“My point is when you look at $50,000 and $30,000, and you need a million, that’s just a drop in the bucket, Glaze says in reference to the reassignment of a firefighter paramedic to a non-ambulance transport assignment and the elimination of engineer positions. “That’s just a way to twist the knife in us, like ‘it’ll hurt you guys a lot; it’s not going to save anything, but I can do it, and I can justify it because we need to save money.’”
Cities that once had their own fire departments before contracting with the Los Angeles County Fire Department include Pomona, Covina, Claremont and Hermosa Beach. Andrew Glaze says that if the city were to contract with Los Angeles County, then Chief Jankowski might lose his job, as the Los Angeles County Fire Department would not need a chief. At best, he would be demoted, says Glaze.
On March 15, 2018, members of the Association conducted a community meeting where Captain Danny Montoya said that LVFD is not up to industry standards regarding personnel responding to emergencies—14 personnel for a residential fire and 27 for an apartment fire. He says the La Verne Fire Department puts out 11 personnel for each. In contrast, he says LA County sends 20 personnel for a residential fire and 28 for an apartment fire.
Russi says that the City Council and he have discussed the possibility of a feasibility study regarding the contracting of services, and that the City Council had no interest in contracting with LA County Fire. “They believe [having a city owned department] provides them with a certain level of control over the services that they provide. We have traditionally been a full service city, and that is part of what makes La Verne what it is, and they want to retain that service model,” Russi says. ■