Fire union has enough signatures to force election

DOWNEY - After a months-long campaign, the Downey Firemen's Association has officially collected enough petition signatures to place an initiative on the ballot next year that will amend the city charter, eliminating the two-thirds voter approval required for Downey to contract out police and fire services. Fire union officials say Downey is violating the charter by hiring outside EMTs and jailers, exposing Downey taxpayers to potential lawsuits.

"Imagine if someone being transported by one of these ambulance operators got into a car accident, it would be detrimental to the city and the taxpayers," said Steve Davis, president of the firefighters' union.

"The city is in violation of its own charter. How far do they have to go, breaking their own rules before you step in and change the rules?"

However, challengers believe the ballot measure strips voters of their voice on matters of public safety by allowing the city council to contract with other local agencies for fire and police services without voter approval.

Mayor Mario Guerra, who has publicly denounced the proposition of switching to county fire service, said he is disappointed that the union has sought to amend the charter, making it easier for the city to adopt county service.

"I have nothing against Steve Davis, but a lot of the things he says continue to not be true," Guerra said Tuesday. "I want what's in the best interests of the city of Downey. The fire union continues to mislead and lie to people -- they've chosen to be bullies and have come after me personally."

While the city of Downey does contract out some city services, including jailers and computer technicians, Guerra maintains that five city attorneys have deemed the contracts legal.

"Does the fire union think the city would be better off with high-salary policemen and firemen doing those jobs? For 13 years it's never been an issue," Guerra said. "We're saving millions of dollars a year, and there's not one fireman not doing fire, and there's not one policeman not doing police."

Guerra continued: "To think anyone would vote for their rights to be taken away...we passed that [charter] for a reason. I believe citizens will overwhelmingly vote to keep the charter the way it is," he said. "That's how I'm going to vote."

According to the Downey city clerk's office, the fire association submitted a total of 12,024 signatures. The number far exceeds the nearly 7,500 signatures, or 15% of the registered voters, needed to place the initiative on the ballot.

The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's office now has 30 days to verify the signatures, said city clerk Adria Jimenez.

Once the signatures are verified, the city council must either adopt the ordinance as is or call for an election, where the people decide the fate of the measure.

"This will not be a special election," said Jimenez. "We cannot legally hold a special election for a charter amendment, but we can hold the election during the statewide primary in June 2014 or the consolidated general election in November 2014."

Union officials, however, are pressing the city council to hold the election this November since the city council is also considering whether to ask residents to approve an increase to the city's utility users' tax.

Davis says the union tried to encourage the city to place the initiative on the ballot last November.

"We've been talking to the council for nine months -- nobody wanted to touch this issue. We've exhausted all our efforts," Davis sighed. "We're hoping the city eliminates the two-thirds voter approval and replaces it with a majority vote by the people. The council can still put it up for a vote."

Nonetheless, Guerra is convinced the union's goal is to change the charter, making it easier for future city councils to disband current safety services in favor of county service.

"I've received calls from firefighters saying they don't support what the fire union is doing so it's not unanimous," said Guerra. "We have the best fire department around, I couldn't be prouder. As long as I'm on the council, I will do everything in my power to keep our police and fire."

********** Published: March 28, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 50