In what Mayor Charles V. Smith called a blatant attempt by outsiders to influence a local election, as many as 300 firefighters from around the state are expected to answer a union call to walk precincts here today in an effort aimed at persuading voters to oust Smith and three other council members in an upcoming recall.
The action, which came after a plea for help from the firefighters local to its state parent, is the latest twist in a long-running battle between Westminster city officials and firefighters over reductions in the Fire Department’s budget. And it appeared to herald an increasingly bitter battle leading up to the June 7 recall election, which targets City Council members Charmayne S. Bohman, Tony Lam and Craig Schweisinger, along with Smith.
“These are carpetbaggers coming from the outside to help the local union take control of our city,” Schweisinger said Friday. “What does a fireman from San Jose have to do with a fireman in Westminster? Why are they here? The answer is: Because they’re all part of the AFL-CIO conspiracy to take over our city. They have no business being here.”
Union officials said Friday they were uncertain exactly how many firefighters from outside the community were arriving here to take part in today’s door-to-door campaigning, but a political consultant working for the recall effort said the figure could approach 300.
“The city is trying to make them out as outsiders and invaders,” consultant Phil Giarrizzo said, adding that the group will include non-union members as well. “These are firefighters from communities surrounding Westminster who put their lives on the line every day. We’re proud to have their support.”
Mike Garrison, a union director who was recently dismissed as a Westminster fire captain, said the issues in the election are of interest to firefighters everywhere, not just those in Westminster.
The mayor and the other targeted council members, Garrison said, “are trying to make this like Big Brother is coming down here and telling us what to do. We asked for support and help, and I’ll be proud if firefighters from elsewhere come in to help us.
“This council is playing politics with lives.”
Smith retorted: “This is a blatant attempt by the statewide fire union to take over the city of Westminster. Why are they interested in a little city like Westminster? They intend to make this a test case on how to take over a city.”
He and the other targeted council members said they plan to hold their own block-walking campaign and rally today to try to boost their chances of surviving the June 7 vote. The rally begins at 9 a.m. at the campaign headquarters at 6721 Westminster Blvd., Suite 119.
The firefighters will gather at 10 a.m. at their local, 5086 Westminster Blvd., officials said.
The recall effort began last fall, soon after the council voted to eliminate the positions of five firefighters and took one firetruck out of service. The firefighters contend that the staff reductions have endangered public safety. City officials say the cuts, part of a reorganization in the Fire Department, have had no visible effect on fire protection and in fact, have enhanced paramedic and ambulance services.
The conflict escalated in January, when the city, on the heels of an independent study of Fire Department payroll practices, accused some firefighters of fraudulently collecting overtime payments.
Last week, city officials dismissed five Fire Department employees, including battalion chiefs Don Herr and Hal Raphael, captains Joe Wilson and Garrison, and firefighter Dana Bowler, all for alleged payroll abuses. In February, union President Paul Gilbrook also was fired over allegations that he improperly claimed sick leave and drove a fire engine with a suspended driver’s license.
The former employees have denied wrongdoing and are seeking arbitration to regain their jobs.
The union also has filed a federal civil rights suit against the city and several of its leaders, charging that the city’s actions against the firefighters amounted to political retribution. They contended that the retribution was in response to political campaigning against the mayor and two other council members by top union officials in the last election.
Meanwhile, the Orange County Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, the labor union’s county representative, accused the Westminster City Council of union busting in dismissing the Fire Department employees.
“This action is an attempt by anti-worker forces in the city of Westminster to push forth their agenda of union-free work environments,” the labor council said in a statement.