California Firefighters Object to Role as Governor’s Backdrop
By Timm Herdt and Stephanie Hoops
Reprinted from the Ventura County Star
In one of the most recent television productions featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, some of the extras didn’t want to be there.

When Schwarzenegger visited the Topanga fire command center in Thousand Oaks Sept. 30 after taking a helicopter tour of the fire, a news conference was staged for the governor to state his observations and publicly praise the work of firefighters.

For that, he wanted firefighters to stand with him.

Given the political battle Schwarzenegger has waged this year against unions representing public employees, including firefighters, that created a problem. Some firefighters did not want to stand with the governor to create a made-for-TV scene.

When not enough volunteers stepped forward, firefighters were ordered to stand with the governor.

“When they realized what was going on and they were going to be expected to participate, I started getting phone calls,” said Chris Mahon, president of the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association. “My answer was to not disobey a direct order.”

Union representatives object

Mahon, along with representatives of the Los Angeles County and California Department of Forestry firefighters’ unions, held a news conference in Burbank Thursday. They spoke out against what they believe was the governor’s attempt to create a subtle impression that firefighters back his efforts to persuade Californians to approve a package of initiatives on the Nov. 8 special election ballot.

“We’re here today not to bang the governor for giving recognition to the firefighters but for forcing them to be a backdrop to create the illusion that he’s their friend,” said Dave Gillote, president of the Los Angeles County Fire Fighters Local 1014.

Ventura County Fire Marshal Diane Morgan, a member of Chief Bob Roper’s executive staff, confirmed that some firefighters participated in the governor’s news conference only after being ordered to do so.

“It did happen,” she said. “After a fire captain went up to the chief officer and asked whether firefighters were required to do it, the chief officer instructed him that, yes, thou shalt stand up.”

Morgan said the events were in keeping with established protocol. “Any time we have a dignitary visit a fire scene, we typically surround them with on-duty personnel,” she said. “It’s respectful, and it’s what we do.”

Morgan said all personnel responded professionally.

“It was important for them to stand up for state recognition for a job well done,” she said. “They do all have a personal opinion, and they’re allowed to express that. They’re just not allowed to do that when they’re on duty.”

In a statement issued by his political committee, Schwarzenegger said it is the opposition that is trying to politicize the issue.

“I went to the fire site last week to be briefed, to see what we were up against and how the state could help, and to congratulate the firefighters for doing a job so remarkable that it has received praise across the nation,” the statement said. “It is regrettable that the union bosses would take one of the real firefighting success stories of this or any other year, and turn it into a political sideshow.”

Mahon and others say they believe the governor sought to politicize the occasion by creating an image of solidarity with firefighters.

'What’s he doing here?’

“We do believe that was the purpose of his visit,” Mahon said. “We looked at how they wanted everything staged with fire engines and firefighters in the background, and we asked, ‘What’s he doing here?’”

Throughout his nearly two years in office, many of Schwarzenegger’s news events have been elaborately staged, with careful attention paid to lighting, staging and backdrop.

At Thousand Oaks last week, fire engines were pre-positioned to create a backdrop for the governor when he answered questions from reporters.

“They took our newest, shiniest truck — our prettiest one — out for him,” Mahon said.

Press secretary Margita Thompson said the backdrop was necessary so that television viewers would instantly be able to understand the context when scenes from the news conference were aired. “It shows people what is happening, and highlights who the real heroes were,” she said. “We are unapologetic in touting the accomplishments of these men and women. It definitely was not a political event.”

Thompson said the governor’s staff insisted that no personnel or equipment was to be pulled back from a firefighting assignment. “That was the one thing we made clear,” she said.

Pension plan started dispute

Firefighters have been at loggerheads with Schwarzenegger since he proposed earlier this year to do away with traditional pension plans for all public employees and replace them with 401(k)-style retirement savings plans. Schwarzenegger retreated from that proposal after unions representing police officers and firefighters loudly complained that it did not include a specific provision to provide disability benefits for safety workers injured in the line of duty or death benefits for those killed on the job.

Firefighters’ unions are opposed to the Schwarzenegger-backed Proposition 75, which would force public employee unions to get annual written permission from members before spending any portion of their dues for political purposes. They say it would silence their voice in future political debates. The unions also oppose Proposition 76, which they fear could ultimately lead to reductions in public-safety funding. If approved, the proposition would change state budgeting rules.


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