San Marcos fire fighters and city officials during a meet and confer negotiating session last week. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Amid their meet and confer negotiations to forge collectively bargained agreements with the city, San Marcos police and fire fighters have increasingly promoted their interests during this election season.
Taking their cues from their colleagues in larger cities, the police and fire fighters are forming political action committees (PACs), block walking for candidates and providing them with funds, in addition to making endorsements.
The San Marcos Police Officers’ Association (SMPOA) and San Marcos Professional Fire Fighters Association (SMPFFA) have endorsed beauty consultant Monica Garcia for City Council Place 6 and homebuilder Ryan Thomason in Place 5 for the Nov. 3 election.
The SMPFFA has paid for at least one mail out to announce their endorsement, and the SMPOA endorsement, to city voters. Members of the police association have walked blocks for Garcia during this cycle.
Asked about their endorsements for the Nov. 3 election, officials for the police and firefighters associations said they made their decisions after interviews with all the candidates.
SMPOA President Danny Arredondo said candidates usually receive endorsements from SMPOA after a vote of the association’s members, though occasionally the group’s executive board will choose who to endorse. SMPFFA President Howie Minor said his organization endorses candidates based on input from the group’s PAC director, that director’s assistant, the group’s executive board and the members who attend the organization’s meetings.
“We made that decision and we stick by it,” Arrendondo said. “You know, it may not always be the right one. Sometimes that’s what you find out, but we stand by it because that is the choice we made, because we believe in responsibility and accountability.”
Said Minor, “After interviewing all the candidates … we go with a candidate that we feel is going to serve our best interests as far as being the front fore-leader of public safety. Nothing against … any incumbents or anybody else. We just gotta go with who we think is going to be the one carrying the torch for us. Not saying the that the other guys don’t, but, you know, you got a decision to make — it’s not an easy decision to make sometimes, I’ll be honest with you — but you got to make your decision and you got to stick with your decision. No disrespect to anybody, I’ll tell you that right now. Because you never know what’s going to happen. You may be turning around in a year or two and be working for the candidate you didn’t endorse. That’s the way I see things … We got to do what we think is best for us at the time.”
Minor said his organization formed a PAC after fire fighters from other parts of Texas made contact with their San Marcos colleagues through joint training exercises and biennial conventions, where PACs were a topic of conversation. Minor said SMPFFA members voted to form a PAC about two and a half years ago.
Minor said the PAC did not support candidates in its first year of existence because the Texas Ethics Commission was still processing some of the organization’s paperwork.
Arrendondo said SMPOA has plans to form a PAC in the near future.
PACs are allowed to raise money and make contributions to candidates. However, the law prohibits coordination between PACs and political campaigns.
“Political (activity) in the fire department started way back years ago, with … the Bostick Brothers out of Fort Worth,” Minor said. “That’s where, really, the PAC tradition started for the fire fighters throughout the country, was in Fort Worth Texas. And it’s just something that’s grown on a local level through Fort Worth and through all the other departments … on a state level and on a national level. It’s just something to kind of help us obtain some of the needs that we need to perform our job and support what fire fighters need throughout their careers.”
SMPOA and SMPFFA have been in meet and confer negotiations with the city for several weeks. Issues being negotiated by fire fighters include pay and longevity, vacation, professional association business leave and grievance procedures. Issues for police include longevity pay and on-call pay. There are two city police detectives on-call, each for a period of seven days at a time.
“In reality, if we provided that service any other way, we’d have to hire four more officers or detectives and having them work at night,” Arredondo told councilmembers during the council’s Oct. 5 meeting. “But these men and women have pretty much done that. We’re just asking that if their life is being placed on hold for seven days, that they be compensated fairly for that seven-day period, for being limited to what they can do.”
SMPFFA’s PAC filed its first campaign finance report on Jan. 12, 2008. In its report eight days before the November 2008 mayoral election, the PAC reported expenditures of $500 to Mayor Susan Narvaiz’s campaign and $188 to MAC Promotions for Narvaiz campaign T-shirts.
SMPFFA’s PAC reported $3,111.01 in maintained contributions as of its last report, filed July 8 2009. Minor said “probably half” of SMPFFA’s members contribute to the PAC’s fund. As all contributions to the PAC were $50 or less, the PAC did not have to disclose any specific contributors.
The SMPFFA PAC is legally-obligated to file a campaign finance report by the eighth day before the Nov. 3 election. If the PAC engaged in election-related activity by 30 days before the election, it would have to file a 30-day-before-election report.
“You learn a lot about the PAC and you see what benefit it does for other people, and it just makes you want to form that and get involved politically,” Minor said. “Because if you don’t get involved politically, then you’re pretty much not going to get your issues heard, really. So that’s kind of how that formed, is we saw the benefit of it from what other associations did with it.”
It is illegal for labor organizations to raise money for their PACs, such as in the form of member dues. PACs must be funded by individual contributions. Minor said SMPFFA is not using member dues to fund its PAC.
“Separate account, separate everything,” Minor said. “We haven’t filed (a 2009 election-related campaign report) yet — we’ll be filing our 30-day notice here pretty quick. We don’t do a whole lot as far as expenditures … We’re kind of building that nest egg … There are some associations that have a very healthy PAC fund. And a lot of other PAC funds donate to PAC funds (that are) … starting (up). I haven’t really hit anybody up for it yet, but I’ve known a PAC fund to give $15,000 to other associations just to get started. It’s pretty amazing, the help that — it’s just a big brotherhood on some things.”
Arredondo said his organization has never funded any candidate’s political campaign, but has volunteered, for example, by walking door-to-door with candidates — block walking.
“When we block walk we wear our San Marcos Police Officers’ Association T-Shirts,” Arredondo said.
Garcia said members of the fire and police associations wear garb that marks them as police officers and fire fighters when they block walk for her.
“Because their associations have endorsed me, that’s really what they bring, is that manpower,” Garcia said. “We walked Willow Creek and the Heritage Association within a matter of four hours. And I obviously would not have been able to do that with a small number of people, so they’ve been a tremendous aid.”
Garcia said she attended some fire and police meet and confer meetings, which are open to the public, before she was endorsed by both associations. Minor, who served as vice president of his association for nine years and was elected president last year, said his experience indicates the San Marcos police and fire associations never support opposing candidates.
SMPOA and SMPFFA sent questionnaires to all council candidates and held a joint meeting in September where they invited all candidates to give five-minute presentations. The candidates’ questionnaire responses are on SMPFFA’s website. Arredondo said opposing candidates did not make presentations in one another’s presence.
“It was not a situation where we wanted them to be uncomfortable,” Arredondo said. “We wanted them to feel as comfortable as they possibly could. And after their responses, as well as their written responses to the questionnaire that we had, the association as a whole, we make the decision as to who it is we are going to endorse.”