A Norco firefighters labor group is defending its right to campaign in local elections amid concerns that its members, who mostly live outside of the city, unfairly influence campaigns.The issue of unions investing significant money and time in local elections is not new to California cities, some of which have tried to limit their involvement, according to the citizens group California Common Cause. In defense of the practice, union organizers and some local candidates argue that lobbying groups have a constitutional right to support candidates making decisions that directly affect their professions.At a recent Norco City Council meeting, Richard Hallam, chair of the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, told the council he was concerned that the Norco Firefighters Association wields too strong of an influence in city elections and poses a conflict of interest partly because most of its members do not live in the city.”They have so much money to give to candidates and they put up big signs saying Norco Firefighters Association endorses such and such candidates,” said Hallam, mentioning this year is another election year. “It’s an unfair advantage for the people they endorse… Why don’t they let the citizens of Norco elect who they want to elect?”
The issue is especially important this year with two City Council seats being contested in this November’s election.
Hallam pointed to difficulties this year between the association and the city when the city tried to reduce the fire department’s budget. Meetings carried on for weeks, and Councilman Malcolm Miller said he was pressured heavily to the point that he felt intimidated.”When the firefighters provide you with support to become elected, there appears to be an unwritten quid pro quo so that when you don’t make a decision in the direction that they would like it to be, they see it as a betrayal. It almost gets to the point of political intimidation,” said Miller, who enjoyed the support by the association when elected.Firefighter endorsements can have significant sway with voters because of their status in the community, Miller said.”But I think some of the associations have abused that power,” he continued. “I think that trying to influence elections is a perfectly legitimate activity, but like most activities, there is a balance. When taken to an extreme, it is unacceptable.”Norco Fire Chief Jack Frye, who is not a union member because he is a department head, said Hallam’s concerns are valid.”If the union were to say to a candidate running for council, ‘Because we enjoy great public support as firefighters, we’re willing to support you provided you remember us down the road,’ to some, that presents a real conflict because it’s given with an expectation of a return,” said Frye.He said 90 percent of Norco firefighters live outside of the city.”I really don’t have any issue with them getting involved. I can only say in defense of Mr. Hallam’s statement… why are you allowing 90 percent of the people in the fire union who don’t live in the city to control our election?”
MORE THAN A RIGHT
Ron Laursen, president of the Norco Fire Fighters Association, defended the union’s involvement, saying firefighters have a substantial interest in the city they spend one-third of their working lives in and that the council’s decisions affect fire and public safety.”I think what it comes down to is firefighters get involved because they (elected officials) make decisions that affect our staffing, our response times, our firefighter safety and public safety,” said Laursen. “It’s not only a right to participate, it’s a responsibility. We need to make sure our firefighters are safe on the job.”Laursen does not see a conflict of interest with the firefighters union campaigning for a candidate because campaigns are about getting a message out to the public — and theirs is to promote safety.”We are the experts when it comes to those things,” Laursen said.Kevin Bash, a City Council candidate, says lobbying groups have a constitutional right to get involved in local elections.”As much as it can be frustrating that there are lobbying groups, it’s America,” said Bash. “How can you tell an American citizen who bands together with another American citizen not to support their cause?”Bash recognizes that support by a union means money, exposure and power.”What you hope is that if you’re backed by a large entity like that, whoever is being backed has enough integrity to see the bigger picture,” he said.
Story by: Press Enterprise