Our city's fire department is NOT involved directly in our city's elections. Like all city departments, it is by law supposed to be nonpolitical. However, the independent union-like association that includes many of our firefighters is intricately involved in city politics—and in ways and to the extent that may surprise average voters and citizens of our community. The law requires this to be done out of uniform and totally off hours and away from their places of work.
At the same time, an Open Records request to the city proved what many have long suspected and rumored but, in typical Garland fashion, is not readily in public view: Less than 5% (a total of 6) of our 119 firefighters (people in our fire department who bear that job title) actually live and vote in Garland. The other 95% live as far away as southern Oklahoma, East Texas, the western outskirts of Fort Worth and other places. The firefighters earn between $61,084 and $76,760 a year in Garland and from Garland citizens' pockets yet spend the vast majority of that money in other places, building the economic base of other locations.
While 95% of our actual firefighters live outside the City of Garland, do not pay taxes here, and do not vote in our city, the firefighters association, which touts loudly and proudly "Garland Firefighters support . . .", exercises perhaps the most powerful influence of any individual or group over our city's municipal government.
Before I go further in this blog, let me be clear: I love and respect our city's and our nation's first-responders, including the brave men and women who keep us safe when fire turns destructive. I am a proud graduate of the City of Garland's Citizens Fire Academy; I am a member of the Citizens Firefighters Club of Garland. Two of my four nephews are firefighters in Oklahoma. One of Kay's cousins is a firefighter in Dallas; another is retired from the volunteer fire department in a small town in East Texas. We have friends who are parents of firefighters. At our house we love firefighters as individuals and as a department of our city!
I also love Garland and our city's firefighters enough to ask the difficult questions about their political action committee, their union leaders, and their excessive over-involvement in our city's political elections. I want better for them and don't want to see them continuing to go down a troublesome path many in our city are beginning to seriously question and which could majorly damage our fire department's reputation overall.
This is also not meant to reflect personally on the candidates that the political action committee endorsed in the most recent city election. Because of the way this firefighters' PAC operates, however, the election was not a fair fight—and local elections down the road can never be a fair fight as long as this organization's practices are not seriously studied or countered.
To counterbalance the excessive power the Garland Fire Fighters Association wields in our city elections, other groups of city employees, disenfranchised residents, or others may be forced to rise up to challenge the GFFA-dominated power structure here. I heard grumblings of this during the recent Mayor of Garland campaign.
The way the Garland Fire Fighters Association's PAC operates creates the type of municipal election here that essentially eliminates the democratic process. Only a candidate endorsed by the PAC has any chance of winning at all, given the deep pockets the firefighters' union has. In this blog I repeatedly have encouraged Garland citizens to run for public office and to throw their hats in the ring in local elections and to exercise their rights as citizens to do so. However, very few people can stand against this kind of onslaught. The average citizen can't expect to take on this challenge unless the person is independently wealthy and can outspend the deep-pocketed Garland Fire Fighters Association union. Even at that, there's no guarantee, because who is going to oppose the "motherhood-and-apple-pie" questionable approach of "Hi, I'm a Garland firefighter" or "Hi, I'm a firefighter" that occurs when GFFA representatives electioneer at polling places and approach voters with their endorsements and materials as they enter to cast their ballots? It represents an extremely unfair advantage. It has earmarks of what one might experience if he or she lived in a country where there is really no choice in an election or where successors are pre-selected.
Let's first define three terms that are crucial to this conversation. The terms sound alike but legally apply to three different entities.
1. The Garland Fire Department. This is the unit of our city assigned to save lives and property by fighting fires and transporting and sick and injured to area medical facilities. It is top quality with an annual operating budget of $32,635,109 for fiscal year 2017-2018. The city employs 119 firefighters and 141 others in that department. Mark Lee is the city's fire chief.
2. The Garland Fire Fighters Association. This AFL-CIO affiliated organization is known as the International Organization of Fire Fighters Local 1293. While a separate entity from the Garland Fire Department, its membership is overlapping and is composed of most of the men and women in the Garland Fire Department, not just "firefighters" per se.
3. The Garland Fire Fighters Community Interest Committee is a political action committee, aka a PAC. It is somewhat similar to those PAC's you read about in national elections, which are funded by extremely rich U.S. citizens who often have right-wing, left-wing, and other political agendas. The local Garland PAC pools money given by firefighters (often deducted directly from their city paychecks) to be used in political activities, such as elections for Garland city council and mayoral races. Many Garland politicos believe it is almost next to impossible for an ordinary citizen in a competitive race against a council or mayoral candidate endorsed by Local 1293 to win. Because the group is so well organized, skilled, monetarily endowed, and powerful, the Firefighter PAC is able to throw as much money and influence as necessary to win an election here.
The Fire Fighters Association even has its own private offices in the basement of the Chase Bank Building near the intersection of Garland Avenue at Main Street.
Garland firefighter David Riggs, president for many years of the association, and Garland firefighter Brandon Day, secretary-treasurer, are key leaders in the organization and the organization's political campaigns. Riggs is a skilled, seasoned politician who is scheduled to retire from the Garland Fire Department in 2019. I will be very surprised if he doesn't opt to run for public office in coming years or create his own consulting business for political candidates. Riggs lists on State of Texas paperwork his address as Sulphur Springs, TX. He is among Garland's most astute political powerhouses right now and one of the most influential people in Garland city elections, even though his address is in Sulphur Springs.
|A familiar face in matters pertaining to Garland politics is David Riggs, president of the Garland Fire Fighters Association, and one of the most powerful political figures in Garland.|
The Garland Fire Fighters Association's Community Interest Committee is the strongest and most financially able of any PAC in Garland today. It makes the other Garland PAC's associated with such entities as the Republicans and Democrats in our community look weak and anemic.
The only comparable Garland entity to the firefighters is the UA Plumbers and Pipefitter Union Local PAC Fund, which gives mostly to non-local races. It does not seem to want or have an influence in our city's politics. Its focus seems to be on state and national politics.
So the firefighters' PAC stands alone in financial strength and political power in our city. Nothing else in Garland compares to it. No wonder our local politicians appear to live in awe—and at the same time fear—of it!
One has to follow the rabbit-trail through state government maze at the Texas Ethics Commission's website to discern the true wealth and influence of the Garland Fire Fighters Association and its powerful PAC, aka the association's Community Interest Committee.
Fortunately, the State of Texas requires the PAC to file paperwork for its fundraising and expenditures on political campaigns. This is yet another classic example of how the state appropriately has to supervise what goes on in a city.
The role of the Garland Fire Fighters Association's Community Interest Committee is especially significant in a city where voter apathy is extreme and financial means for elections is desperately small. Those unfortunate elements combine to magnify the influence of the firefighters' PAC. (In the last election only about 3% of Garland voters exercised their right to vote.)
The Garland Fire Fighters Community Interest Committee has the financial resources and political clout in the city to elect just about whoever it wants in a city election. And when it deems necessary, the PAC uses those resources to whatever extent necessary, leading to what could make a significant portion of our current Garland City Council beholden to it, living in fear of it, or going begging after its support.
The city has little it can do to cure the union's influence, especially since the majority of the members of the Garland City Council were elected with its help—and three of the others have never stood for election and received even one citizen's actual vote and easily could live wondering what would happen to them if they ever became involved in a REAL contested election and needed the firefighter PAC's assistance to stay in office.
It represents an extremely unfair advantage, especially when those approaching the voter with the appealing introduction, "Hi, I'm a firefighter”, fail to reveal their actual place of residency elsewhere. Members of the Garland Fire Fighters Association say they perform these election-related tasks in their off-duty hours. One told a member of our campaign staff that he was paid by PAC money to be present at the polls. (Initial reports filed in Austin indicate the firefighters who work the poll are paid by the PAC. More on this in another blog later.)
And why not live in Garland? If firefighters and other city employees work here and earn their salaries here, why would they not want to support the hand that feeds them and help bolster the economic base that in turn could help their lot economically? Garland has nice homes, wonderful people, good schools, and a city with an economic base that needs all the help it can muster! If our city council had courage, it would ask important questions like that when the union leaders come calling asking for their pet projects such as setting up a special "retirement stability benefit" for them.
In late 2017, the Garland Fire Fighters Association's Community Interest Committee reported to the State of Texas that it had available assets of more than $120,000 and was still collecting funds to disperse during elections in 2018 and beyond. (In Garland, a contested City Council race can cost upward of $10,000 and a mayoral election more than $50,000.) I personally ran a frugal mayoral campaign that spent more in the realm of what candidates for council normally spend (when a contested race actually occurs!) In its May 3 filing, the Garland firefighters PAC reported that for the year its receipts reached $33,228.00 and its expenditures $34,494.29. Those funds seem to have been disbursed mostly for Texas legislative races. Most of the expenses for its involvement in the Mayor of Garland special election on May 5 are not included in that May 3 report. I will report to my readers on them later when all those reports are filed and publicly available.
A major issue that Garland faces, as one reader pointed out recently in a response to one of my blogs, is that Garland does not have its own independent newspaper or other media such as TV or radio stations to help ferret out the truth for us. That means we have no independent voice in the community to determine and assess the information about city elections, including information about the oversized role of the firefighters association and its PAC.
During the most recent city election, one couldn't readily tell the difference between the city's fire department and the firefighters association and the activities of its PAC. Many citizens were quite confused by the distinction. Representatives of the Association hustled voters at the polling stations and identified themselves as "Hi, I'm a Garland firefighter" or "Hi, I'm a firefighter", further muddying the waters between politically active city employees under the guise of the firefighters PAC and city practice restricting political activity of its employees.
I have asked the Texas Ethics Commission in Austin, the state's watchdog on elections, for a reading on just how close the association came to stepping over the fine legal line of what is ethically right for it and at the same time harmful to our citizens who want to do right in elections.
|Texas law is very specific about what political signs can say and how wording is presented. Our campaign noted several areas needing clarification in the Garland Fire Fighters Association's signs.|
Some of the PAC's larger campaign signs during the Mayor of Garland race need clarification about whether they could have violated the law. In my document filed with the Texas Ethics Commission in Austin I cite several potential areas of question with their signs. My campaign workers and I deliberately acted cautiously and opted to wait until after the election was over rather than sending the mayoral campaign into chaos by deliberately and legally raising the issue and demanding during the waning days of the campaign that the Garland Fire Fighters Association's possibly illegal signs be removed.
Now that the campaign is over, I believe the city must face up to and address the matter publicly, so that citizens understand fully how their votes are being influenced by the firefighters' PAC, its money, and what citizens' options are going forward for dealing with it.
Many Garland citizens approached, emailed, and or called me to complain about "the firefighters'" aggressive behavior, including numerous robo phone calls, excessive direct mailings, signs, and electioneering voters at the polls. All this went well beyond the mere act of issuing an endorsement for a candidate. Most citizens didn't seem to know the fine points that distinguish the city fire department, the independent association, and the powerful PAC. They just referred to what was happening in the election and at the polls as "the firefighters".
Our firefighters rightfully bemoan the higher cancer risk firefighters face today due to chemicals used in all sorts of manufacturing. And they have asked City Council for a special "retirement stability benefit" to help offset that danger—a perk that even our police who daily face untold dangers said was not a priority for them. Yet the firefighters association spends on city political campaigns vast sums of money that could be used for a more worthwhile cause such as care of firefighters battling cancer or maybe even special cancer insurance for them. An individual fire department employee could funnel his or her funds now going to the PAC and reallocate them into a savings account for his or her retirement, if that is a matter of concern. The association's and PAC's stewardship of these funds seems puzzling at best. For the past decade, they've been growing in their involvement with our city politics. In fact, many sitting city council members (those that were actually elected by citizens in a competitive race, not by council because no one filed against them) are in their debt for the money the organization has fed into their campaigns to get elected.
During the most recent mayoral election, the firefighters association seemed almost in a state of panic to make sure their candidate won. It reminded me of my classes in the Fire Academy in which we were taught to go into a fire using everything we had to put it out and not let it spread. The Garland Fire Fighters Association already had an outstanding track record for steering elections in their preferred direction, so their response in this election was more than noteworthy.
The issue is NOT our valued firefighters individually nor as a department of the city. It is the element within the firefighters community that tries to exercise unfair political influence far beyond that which most people truly understand or believe is right in our nation.
Whether the group's actions are ethical, moral, or right—and should be allowed to continue unchallenged—is the question that Garland's citizens need to answer for themselves—after getting all the facts out in front of them, something that hasn't been done until now.
Like the proverbial "elephant in the living room", Garland politicos and wannabe politicos have much they need to tell our citizens and the public in general about the influence this group of city employees has over City Council and the city itself. What exactly is the firefighters association and its PAC being promised in exchange for its money and support at the polls? I suggest that every local candidate who has accepted firefighter PAC money publicly disclose the exact amount and how it was used, since the public seldom if ever reads the candidates' city-required campaign financial statements.
One antidote for the issue is to encourage other groups of employees and citizens to do the same as the firefighters association. If the firefighters association is allowed to continue to be so active in city politics, why not encourage every city department (engineering, animal control, library, waste management, et al) to form its own political action committee (PAC), to raise funds through withdrawals from their city paychecks and lobby for whatever monies or issues they desire?
For the sake of future candidates in all Garland elections—and certainly for the well-being of Garland firefighters themselves—this matter needs to be out in the open, freely discussed, and solutions sought. It's not fair to others in the city that one group gets to exercise power so much greater than other groups, especially since members of that power-wielding group are city employees, mostly do not live in our city, do not pay taxes as the rest of us are required to do, and do not vote in our city elections. They take Garland taxpayers' money and spend it in other locales, while wielding major influence that impacts our city for years and years to come.
Free access to our city's political system is part of building a better community for ALL Garland citizens.