After being overwhelmingly rejected by voters twice, a proposal to provide Arlington firefighters with greater employment protections through a civil service system was a winner Saturday.
In the hotly debated civil service issue, which was vehemently opposed by the mayor and council, the unofficial vote total showed Proposition 2 leading with 54 percent to 46 percent, with 27 of 28 precincts reporting.
A civil service system would limit management’s authority in hiring and promoting firefighters and other personnel matters, which backers say is necessary to curtail unfair favoritism. But opponents contend it would restrict the fire chief’s ability to hire and place employees where they’re most needed.
“We’re glad we’re ahead,” said David Crow, president of the Arlington Professional Fire Fighters Association, who was following the results along with other supporters at Division Brewing.
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In other voting, Proposition 1 — a bond program to build a $45 million, 68,000-square-foot adult activity center — easily won 69 percent to 31 percent. The senior center would be built on wooded property at the Pierce-Burch Water Treatment Plant’s 25-acre site just east of Lake Arlington.
Mayor Jeff Williams and two other City Council members, Michael Glaspie and Kathryn Wilemon, won and incumbent Lana Wolff’s lead over her two challengers was just under the majority needed to avoid a June 10 runoff.
Arlington firefighter Shawn Graham speaks out in favor of a system he says promotes firefighters McClatchyjlmarshall@star-telegram.com
The race for the District 3 seat, being vacated by Robert Rivera, also is headed for a runoff for two of the four candidates.
‘We’re excited, and we’re looking forward to keeping the momentum going in Arlington,” Williams said. “We’ve got lots of great things happening.”
In the hotly debated civil service issue, the previous elections turned back efforts to put both the police and fire services under civil service. A successful petition campaign by the Arlington Professional Fire Fighters Association forced the City Council to call the special election.
There was no such push to put the police department under civil service, a system opposed by Police Chief Will Johnson, as well as by Fire Chief Don Crowson.
Williams acknowledged the proposition’s lead. “Whatever happens with the civil service, we will work to make our city as good as we can. We love our firefighters and we’re going to continue to work hard to support the department, and public safety is at the top of the list.”
A political action committee opposing civil service has sent out mailers warning of “union control” of fire operations and costs of “millions of dollars” that would cut into fire services and other city services such as road repairs and neighborhood police patrols.
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This week fire association officials criticized a slick mailer showing a little girl holding her teddy bear while standing in the burned-out hull of a building, with a caption saying civil service costs “means fewer firefighters to protect her home.”
Crow called the mailer inaccurate. “It’s disappointing that our mayor and council support that kind of propaganda, trying to discredit our fire department,” he said.
Arlington firefighters are currently subject to the city’s personnel policies as adopted by Arlington City Council, giving the fire chief and his administration wide authority to hire, fire, promote and discipline employees. Civil service establishes state-regulated guidelines on those processes, reducing local control and relying more on test scores and seniority than the judgment of the top fire officials. Adopting civil service would require the city to establish a civil service commission.
Also under civil service, employees can’t be fired but instead can be indefinitely suspended, which is the same as firing except they remain “on the books.” That means it’s possible that an employee, years later, could be exonerated by the commission at another hearing and be eligible for reinstatement and back pay.
The proposal comes as the firefighters association — which claims all but about 10 of the department’s 323 firefighters as dues-paying members — has been lodging complaints with the City Council about the current fire department management, alleging lack of communication and transparency and saying it’s caused low morale among firefighters.
Chief Crowson has said the current personnel system allows him to put people in the positions he believes serves the department best, which he said has allowed him to expand the ranks of minority and women in the department when civil service might have hindered that objective.
Crowson, who has been declining comment since the city recently forbade its employees from talking to the media about the issue, had earlier said he’s at least partly to blame for the low morale because he slashed the overtime budget, which had provided extra pay for many firefighters. He said it was necessary to brings the overall department budget under control.
Crowson also has said the Texas civil service system, established in 1947, is outdated, noting that today’s fire departments manage major EMS contracts, operate in public-private partnerships with sports franchises, hospital districts and schools and assemble public health teams and bomb squads.
“Our skill sets,” he told the council in January, “are much more comprehensive than what civil service was originally designed for, which was fighting fires.”
Arlington voters rejected civil service proposals for the city’s fire and police departments by votes of 7,922 to 4,627 in 1979, and by 9,843 to 5,277 in 1991.
With 27 of 28 precincts reporting, Williams led Chris “Dobi” Dobson with 71 percent of the vote to 29 percent.
With all seven precincts reporting in the four-candidate race for the District 3 seat, being vacated by Robert Rivera, Marvin Sutton and Roxanne Thalman were leading with 44 percent and 35 percent, respectively, with Pablo Frias and Blerim Elmazi trailing with 15 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
With all five precincts reporting in District 4, Councilwoman Wilemon beat Teresa Rushing, 66 percent to 34 percent.
With all five precincts reporting, District 5 Councilwoman Wolf led her two challengers, Dakota Loupe and Mathew Powers, 46 percent to 34 percent to 20 percent, respectively. Powers was arrested Feb. 8 after he allegedly sent threatening and obscene messages to a state representative’s wife.
At-large District 8 Councilman Michael Glaspie won 82 percent to 18 percent, over Ghulam Sumdani.