A political action committee representing Santa Paula’s firefighting union spent more than $15,400 in 2014 and 2016 helping elect the five sitting City Council members, according to campaign finance reports submitted to the California Secretary of State’s Office and the city.
That includes individual donations to Mayor Jenny Crosswhite, council members Ginger Gherardi and John Procter in 2014 and Martín Hernandez in 2016; as well as spending on behalf of the four and Clint Garman by the union’s PAC, Firefighters for Better Government.
Public safety and public employee unions, as the biggest and most consistent spenders in political campaigns, play a “major role” in elections, said Mark Bucher, chief executive officer of California Policy Center, a think tank that studies fiscal policies.
“Their influence simply can’t be understated,” he said.
If a major businesses or organization supported every member of an elected body and then were pushing a specific issue, it would raise eyebrows. But not when it’s a firefighting or police union behind the backing, Bucher said.
“We all love our police and fire, and they’re the ones that protect us,” he said. “What people haven’t realized, however, is police and fire unions have taken these good feelings … and turned it into negotiating power.”
Chris Mahon is president of the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association, which represents county and Santa Paula firefighters. He said union members meet with candidates before making endorsements, but such conversations are rarely about specific topics or considerations, he said.
“Our criteria is fairly simple,” he said. “We want to support candidates that understand and prioritize public safety.”
None of the losing candidates in the 2014 or 2016 races received any firefighting PAC money, the reports show.
Santa Paula’s council is in the process of determining whether to disband the Santa Paula Fire Department and get coverage through the Ventura County Fire Department. City firefighters support the move because of the better training, equipment and significantly higher pay they would get through the county agency. Firefighting staff has been in charge of analyzing the financial implications of the move, which would involve turning over 80 percent of the city’s property tax revenues to the county fire agency.
Mahon said consolidation wasn’t a factor in the PAC’s endorsements and candidates weren’t vetted based on that issue. The issue came to the forefront of conversations much more recently, he said.
The union did ask candidates to support funding for firefighting and rescue services “because the Fire Department’s underfunded and it’s an obvious open secret and well-known issue,” he said.
Hernandez and Gherardi support getting coverage through the Ventura County Fire Protection District because they said the move would offer residents better service and save the city money. Having the support of the firefighting union has nothing to do with that decision, they said.
The firefighting PAC spent roughly $2,940 on Hernandez’s 2016 campaigns, the reports show. Of that, $750 went toward an unsuccessful run for the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Hernandez also received $100 from Robert Segova, $200 from Jerry Byrum, $250 from Luis Espinoza and $300 from Gil Segovia. All are listed as city firefighters, the reports show. Segovia also paid a $300 catering bill for a fundraiser.
La Cabaña Restaurant, owned by interim City Manager Rick Araiza and his family, donated $100. Until the interim appointment, Araiza was the city’s fire chief. In recent weeks, Araiza hired two former high-ranking city of Simi Valley officials to give the firefighting switch a third-party review and look at the potential financial implications.
Hernandez said 90 percent of his donations were “unsolicited.” Public safety is one of Hernandez’s highest priorities, he said, and his support comes from people who understand that and trust he will make the best decisions. Moving to the county fire agency would save taxpayers millions in the long run, he said.
“It’s the best thing for our citizens that’s come around in terms of their public safety in a long time,” he said.
The firefighting PAC spent just under $8,800 combined on Gherardi, Procter and Crosswhite. Of that, each received $750 to their individual campaigns.
Gherardi pointed out that she has no control over where the firefighting PAC, or any political action committee, puts its money.
“I have no idea what they spent,” she said. “I don’t remember being interviewed by the Fire Department.”
Typically, union members will meet with candidates before making endorsements.
During the 2014 election, Procter said he got the feeling in talking with people that they were upset with the status quo.
“They were ready for a change,” he said.
Procter said he met with members of the firefighting union and got their endorsement, but had no idea how much money the PAC spent trying to get him elected.
What he knows is he was the biggest contributor to his own campaign, and that was on purpose. He isn’t and didn’t want to appear as though he were beholden to anyone, he said.
“I’m in my own pocket,” Procter said.
Campaign finance reports show he loaned himself $5,000 for the campaign and to date, he said, he’s received about $80 back.
Procter hasn’t made up his mind on whether the city should join the county fire district. He wants to see the findings by the consultants.
“That’s what I’m really waiting to see, how that compares to numbers we’ve been given from our … fire chiefs,” he said.
The PAC spent roughly $3,800 on Garman’s campaign — of that, $350 worth of signs was given to him directly. He said he got the endorsement of the firefighting PAC after meeting with members.
Garman said he’s looking forward to hearing the results of an independent review of the move to the county fire agency that’s currently being done by former Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell and former Assistant City Manager Frank Catania. The two are planning to discuss their findings May 25 as part of a budget workshop.
Crosswhite met with union members and got their endorsement, but that isn’t a factor, she said.
“I take every decision by asking what decision is best for Santa Paula,” she said.
Whether moving to the county fire agency is the best decision isn’t clear to her because she doesn’t have all the information she needs, she said. She’s hoping to get that from the consultants.
The firefighting PAC also spent roughly $11,000 getting the 2016 sales tax measure passed, according to documents filed by the pro-tax Committee for Measure T. Voters in November approved the 1-cent sales tax, which can be spent on anything and needed a simple majority for passage.
In 2014, another sales tax measure failed. That one needed two-thirds support but would have required that the money be spent on policing, which would have gotten half the money raised from it, as well as firefighting and roads, which would have each gotten a quarter. In that contest, the firefighting PAC didn’t spend anything.
Mahon said the union didn’t oppose Measure F, but there were problems with it.
“Part of the issue was it locked in funds at specific levels when it wasn’t clear to us exactly what the long-term needs were going to be in the future,” he said. The recently passed tax offered more flexibility, he said.
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