COMMENTARY by LAMAR W. HANKINS
With respect to firefighter and police pay, the parties directly affected have been trying to hide the truth from the taxpayers who pay their salaries. For the last twenty years, I have represented many police officers in disputes with their chiefs of police in various communities in Central Texas. When I was city attorney in San Marcos in the 1980s, I gave legal advice to the police department as much as to any other city department. I don’t come at this issue of pay with a bias against such public service employees, but I do respect complete truthfulness.
As far as I can determine, here is the short version of what happened last year when the San Marcos firefighters and police won a significant new contract for salary and benefit increases. One hundred fifty employees split $2.8 million over three years. That is an average just under $19,000. None of this money was for equipment, or training, or new hires. It was all for salaries and benefits for existing employees. (Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 3, 2009, page B2.)
And they will be back for more in the near future. Thus, it is important for them to have a city council made up of people who will give them the increases in salaries and benefits that they want. San Marcos firefighters and police have become increasingly involved in the political process over the last twenty-five years. Their PAC takes contributions from anyone. Developer and political activist Terry Gilmore gave them and others thousands of dollars to try to defeat John Thomaides.
Now, one of their own, former San Marcos police officer Rodney Van Oudekerke is running for city council. It is unlikely he will vote against his old friends and colleagues. Daniel Guerrero, running for mayor, has thrown in his lot with the firefighters and police. It is no wonder that he has done so since he has relatives among those groups.
Now, I have learned that the organization Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) is coming to town to work to defeat John Thomaides in his bid for mayor because Thomaides will not be a rubber stamp for what the police and firefighters want, which is more money from the taxpayers.
If the best argument you can make is that they have dangerous jobs and deserve everything they ask for, I’ll remind readers what I wrote about this issue last December: “The recognition of the danger of the jobs of police officers and firefighters gives other city employees a good argument to make in favor of similar increases in their pay. During the 25 years I have lived in San Marcos, I don’t recall that a single police officer or firefighter has been killed in the line of duty. However, I do remember that around 1988 a Public Works Department employee driving heavy equipment across what is now the intersection of MLK and Guadalupe was killed when a tractor-trailer rig hit him. And we all know that animal control employees have to deal with vicious dogs and even wild animals on occasion.”
I have grown tired of hearing the emotional argument about the extraordinary danger of their jobs because the facts don’t support that view. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, the most dangerous jobs based on their fatality rates are fishers, timber cutters, airplane pilots, structural metal workers, taxicab drivers, construction laborers, roofers, electric power installers, truckdrivers, farm workers. Then we find the police in eleventh place. I do not mean to denigrate the dangerousness of their jobs, but that dangerousness needs to be put into perspective. There are other city employees with more dangerous jobs who are not paid nearly as well.
But there is another aspect to this situation that hasn’t been discussed publicly. It is fear and intimidation. When the largest association of police in Texas is named CLEAT, that should give you pause. I have been cleated and I know how it feels. Talk to your friends, is there anyone who doesn’t react with some version of fear when police lights go off in their rearview mirror? When a phalanx of police and firefighters appear at city council meetings in uniform, many with their arms crossed in a belligerent pose, is the purpose benign? Or is it to send a message to the people on the dais that they better take notice and vote the right way? The police and firefighters have a psychological advantage and they know it.
Police particularly are intimidating. Many people in San Marcos–law-abiding, good people–are afraid of the police. Some of that fear grows from the guns and batons and tasers and mace they carry around their waists. Some of the fear comes from the incidents of police violence directed toward people in the city. One video I viewed repeatedly, showed an officer violently pushing a much smaller, unarmed female civilian with a baton just to make her back up. The push was so hard, she fell backward and caught herself on the edge of a concrete stair abutment. She may have been intoxicated (though she wasn’t arrested for any offense to my knowledge), but the behavior of the officer appeared bullying to me. When police officers administer such “street justice,” it can lead to fear by many citizens.
When A.C. Gonzales was City Manager in the 1980s, he wanted to cross-train firefighters for either EMT or police positions, but was rebuffed constantly in his efforts. From his perspective as city manager, firefighters did not have enough work to keep them busy much of the time. Firefighters have a lot of sitting around time when they are not cleaning equipment, training, weightlifting, eating, and sleeping, waiting for a fire call. Due to their work schedules–firefighters are on duty 24 hours and then are off 48 hours–they have a lot of time for pursuing other activities. Many of them have started businesses to add to their incomes when they are off: gutter installation, lawn maintenance, landscaping, painting, etc. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong about this. In fact, I applaud their initiative. My point is that they have much better than average job schedules and pay that give the kind of flexibility and opportunity most workers do not have.
The police and firefighters are coming close to taking over the politics of San Marcos. Only two people stood up to their exorbitant salary and benefit demands last year. One of those people is retiring from the council. The police and firefighters have targeted the other one for defeat. Only the voters can stop the domination of the public interest of all taxpayers by 150 people. In our system, the citizens are supposed to be supreme, not the special interests. In this election, we will see just how upside down our local democracy has become.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Local Government Watch–San MarcosEmail | Print