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Public safety unions issue joint candidate endorsements

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The campaigns of Council Member Lee Leffingwell and candidates Cid Galindo and Randi Shade got a boost on Tuesday as the unions representing Austin police, firefighters, and EMS workers issued joint endorsements in the upcoming City Council races. It is the first time all three unions have joined forces to issue endorsements.


“This is a historic moment in Austin,” said Officer Wuthipong (Tank) Tantaksinanukij with the Austin Police Association’s political action committee (APA PAC). “We may have in the past endorsed some of the same candidates, but this go-round all three of the PACs have gotten together and made endorsements of these candidates.”


Tantaksinanukij said the groups had taken the records of the incumbent Council Members into account when making their decision on which candidates to support. “We’re not looking for candidates to run on a public safety platform,” he said. “We need candidates that perform on a public safety platform.”


Galindo is running for the seat being vacated by Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley. Also vying for that position are Laura Morrison, Robin Cravey, Jennifer Gale and Sam Osemene. But the spotlight Tuesday was on incumbent Jennifer Kim.


The representative of the Austin Firefighters’ Association at Tuesday’s news conference said the group had not been satisfied with the response of Council Member Jennifer Kim during her term in office, which is why they are endorsing challenger Randi Shade. The union endorsed Kim in 2005.


“We felt that she was not as responsive as we would have hoped,” said Mike Bewley with the firefighters union. “She didn’t have the kind of working relationships with the other Council members that would lead her to be someone who could build a coalition around one of our issues and that was a primary factor in deciding we would open our endorsement to other candidates.” Bewley said there was no one specific vote where Kim had acted against the union’s interests, but rather that the union was concerned about a consistent lack of communication. “I could characterize her performance from our perspective as a lack of access and a lack of ability to build coalitions with her fellow council members to get action on our items,” he said.


Bryan Fitzpatrick with the Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Association agreed that his group had not received a satisfactory response from Council Member Kim on more than one occasion during the past two and one-half years. “It is an accessibility issue,” he said. “Our emails were not answered or left in limbo…and we were not able to follow up. So lack of follow-up would be part of the problem.”


Kim offered a different explanation for the unions’ actions. “I’ve supported them on all their issues, except for one,” said Kim. “That was the firefighters’ pension. The firefighters want an increase of two percent to their pension, and they came and asked us for that outside of the budget cycle. (See In Fact Daily, March 1, 2007) It would be $3 million we would have to cut from somewhere else to be able to fund that. I am not going to support that at the expense of our regular city employees.”


As for the unions’ claims that she had been inaccessible, Kim said they were unfounded. “Every time they’ve requested a meeting with me, I’ve responded and I’ve met with them,” she said. “And there are a couple of times when I’ve requested a meeting with the firefighters and didn’t get a response. So their claim is really dubious.”


Those candidates that did win the unions’ endorsements attended the announcement with union officials to offer their thanks. “When we talk about quality of life in this community, there’s no question in my mind that that starts and ends with public safety,” said Shade. “So I am extremely honored to have the backing of these folks behind me. I really appreciate it.”


Union officials said that the candidates they are supporting had provided a written guarantee that they would make public safety issues a priority. However, Fitzpatrick with the EMS group said, “there was no quid pro quo. We never discussed pay, benefits, or raises…or asked them for specific items.” APA representative Tantaksinanukij also said that the upcoming negotiations between the three unions and the City of Austin did not play a role in the groups’ decision. “When we did our forums, we never talked about pay raises. We never talked about the contract issues,” he said. “This is about public safety.”


Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald told In Fact Daily he had been working on proposals for the new City Manager, who will decide how to proceed once he is in place in Austin. McDonald confirmed that he is the proposed leader for negotiations with all three public safety unions.


McDonald said the police and fire employee bargaining would take place simultaneously, with the EMS meet-and-confer process beginning about two months later. He noted that contracts with police and fire employees expire on Sept. 30, but since the EMS employees have never had a contract the deadline is not as soon.


McDonald said under his proposal, an Acting Assistant City Manager would take over the departments he currently oversees while he is engaged in negotiations with the unions.


Union leaders signaled on Tuesday that they would be making increased staffing a priority for this year’s budget. Firefighters are concerned about a growing downtown residential population. “We’re moving 25,000 people downtown and putting them upwards of 500 or 600 feet in the air,” Bewley said of the trend toward more downtown high-rise condos. “This is a new response challenge for the fire department. And what we’re asking for is that we take a look at this allocation of our resources and try to make a determination if we have the right resources downtown to meet the challenges.”


For EMS, the concern lies both within the city limits and in the rural areas of Travis County. EMS has a goal of answering Priority 1 calls within 10 minutes. “We are inconsistently meeting that goal over the past five years. We routinely do not meet that goal,” said Fitzpatrick. “The answer to that is more resources.”


The APA PAC representative also said the police department would need to add officers to keep up with demand. While the city has traditionally based the number of APD officers on a formula related to the city’s population, Tantaksinanukij suggested that might not be sufficient. “I don’t think you can go to the city limits and look at the population sign and say ‘this will do for the amount of resources we have out on the streets’. I think we need to look at how many people actually affect the lives in Austin. On any given business day, we put our population well over one million,” he said. “We need to look at those issues.”


Tuesday’s endorsements caught some would-be candidates by surprise, since the filing deadline to run for office has not yet arrived. Jason Meeker, who has said he is “99 percent sure” he will run for Place 1 against Leffingwell, said he found it odd that the public safety groups had made their endorsements before that filing deadline. “Maybe it’s an indication that the people who don’t work inside City Hall don’t have an opportunity to take part in the process,” he said. Meeker said he would be making an announcement of his intentions within two weeks. “Once things do get launched, I’ll be very busy making sure that voters know that there is a fresh alternative and a new direction we can take at City Hall.”


However, Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that the endorsements were no earlier than in previous years. He said the Austin Police Association endorsed him on January 10, 2005 and that the other organizations had followed suit within a week of the APA action.


Allen Demling, 28, an engineer with National Instruments, is also running for Place 1. His press release reads like a spoof of serious announcements but he loaned himself $2500 for the race. Demling is the candidate who wants to win a spot in history for his beard, as recognized by the Misprint Magazine Beard and Moustache competition.


The public safety unions were not the only ones making endorsements on Tuesday. Kim’s re-election campaign sent out an e-mail announcing that environmentalist Robin Rather is supporting Kim. “I did not endorse Jennifer the first time she ran, but her record the last three years has impressed me,” Rather wrote in that e-mail. “She has worked hard and meticulously studies the issues. She is an independent voice on the council, and she calls it like she sees it. Most importantly, Jennifer has a very substantial track record on actual votes, especially against toll roads, Wal-Mart and on the right side of key environmental, affordable housing, and local independent business issues.”


That campaign email also cites endorsements from Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, former Council Member Brigid Shea and local business owners Amy Simmons, Rob Lippincott, Steve Bercu, and Paul Carrozza.

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