Fire union threatens lawsuit over city jailers

DOWNEY -- Downey officials say they were "shocked and surprised" to receive a letter from an attorney representing Downey firefighters alleging Downey is violating its own charter by using non-city employees to staff its jail.

In a letter dated Sept. 10, attorney Laurence S. Zakson alleges that Downey is violating Section 702 of the city charter, which requires that the city provide its own staff for police and fire. Outsourcing must be approved by two-thirds of voters.

"Thus, despite the fact that it is self-evident that jailers working at the City jail handling matters of detention and custody are operating within the Police Department and are providing "police services," these services are not provided by City staff and the City has never held the required advisory vote of the electorate to authorize this third party contract," wrote Zakson, who represents the Downey Firemen's Association.

"The Mayor recently stated that the City declined to bring these jailers in-house along with the ambulance operators because of cost concerns," the letter continues. "However, cost is not a factor excusing compliance with Section 702. If it were, the City would already have contracted fire services to the County of Los Angeles, which can perform such services at a comparable (or even higher level) of service at a lesser cost."

"City leaders cannot ignore the legal requirements of the Charter whenever they find these requirements to be inconvenient, and the Association cannot countenance the City's flagrant disregard of the Charter. Accordingly, the Association hereby demands that the City take appropriate corrective action and advises the Mayor and Council that failure to do so may result in the Association seeking a judicially imposed remedy."

Downey officials denied the allegations in a statement released Thursday.

"We are shocked and surprised by the fabricated claims in the draft lawsuit," Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez said in the statement. "The claim of the City violating the 1998 Charter Amendment by contracting jail services is absolutely false. More importantly, a public and transparent process was enacted in 1998 by an overwhelming majority of the voters."

Mayor Mario Guerra said the City Council is "immensely proud of our more than 150 sworn police officers and firefighters."

"It's a complete fiction to think that the non-sworn contractors who briefly monitor folks temporarily in our custody is somehow a violation of our Charter," he said.

The statement adds: "At a cost of more than $100,000 to Downey taxpayers, the Downey Fire Union will cause residents of the City of Downey to face a ballot question in June 2014 to determine whether they wish to amend the 1998 Charter Provision and "allow the contracting out of police and fire services without voter approval."