Sunday, April 3, 2011

FIREFIGHTERS AND POLITICOS: Local PAC sparks campaign controversy

Politicized fire department prompts Fifth Ward candidate, Union prez dust up
COLUMBIA, 4/3/11  (Beat Byte) -- "What has Ehrhardt Promised the Firefighters?" is both question and salvo on a campaign mailer from Fifth Ward Columbia City Council candidate Helen Anthony that criticizes two of her opponent's biggest supporters:  the Columbia Chamber of Commerce; and a Columbia firefighter-sponsored political action committee that has painted the Ward fire engine red -- with "Vote Ehrhardt" yard signs.   
"The firefighters are lobbying, putting up yard signs, campaigning door-to-door, attending fundraisers, and endorsing Ehrhardt for City Council," states the Anthony flyer, (left, click to enlarge).  "City fire personnel and their PAC have paid for Ehrhardt yard signs.  Helen Anthony...will make no deals in return for any group's political support." 
The flyer prompted Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Local 1055 union president Brad Fraizer to send a letter (below) demanding an apology to Anthony.  "Frankly, I found the implication that we are trying to 'buy' influence offensive," Fraizer told the Heart Beat.  He also telephoned Anthony, "who was defensive and refused to apologize," Fraizer explained. 

Anthony said she was alarmed when she first started hearing, from potential constituents, about the firefighters' campaign. 

"A candidate endorsement is one thing.  But I find the idea of a public employees union conducting an aggressive, door-to-door campaign complete with taking center stage at fundraisers to be completely inappropriate," Anthony told the Heart Beat.  "I had a city employees union offer me an endorsement, which I politely declined," she explained.  "As Council members, we are making decisions about their wages, pensions, working conditions, and a host of other issues that -- to me and many people I've spoken with -- makes it very problematic to accept their political support.  We have to remain objective because we are working on behalf of the entire community." 
The Ehrhardt endorsement marks the second time in a year local firefighters -- public employees ultimately under the direction of the Columbia City Council -- have openly supported the most highly-charged of political causes:  individual candidates.  In 2010, the firefighters union endorsed and supported Columbia Mayor Robert McDavid, M.D. 
It also raises some interesting questions:  As Columbia's firefighters become more politically active, do they risk alienating those constituents who don't support their chosen candidates?   Should they remain politically neutral because they serve everyone equally? 
Just as importantly, what factors have motivated firefighters to wade into the highly-charged political waters of a local City Council race?   

Voter complaints and concerns "for about the last month" about the firefighter campaign prompted Helen Anthony's critical response, she told the Heart Beat.  In one memorable instance, "I had an 83-year-old woman literally grab me as she was telling me she thought firefighters campaigning for candidates was illegal," Anthony explained.   "She said she called the city to complain.  'I've never seen any public employees group do anything like this before,' she said.  I told her it was perfectly legal.  But we both agreed that it was totally inappropriate." 
Fraizer told the Heart Beat he "couldn't be sure" whether a politicized fire department risked turning off local residents, but that he was sure "local firefighters enjoy tremendous support in the community." 
Concern over threats to public safety motivated the firefighters to jump into the fray, Fraizer said.  A controversial move last year by Columbia city manager Bill Watkins to close a First Ward fire station sent a chilly message both to First Ward residents and firefighters:  Voters and public employees who lack political power at City Hall may suffer severe consequences.  
"We aren't lobbying for higher pay or better benefits, but solely to assure that public safety isn't jeopardized," Fraizer explained.  "Last year, we collectively realized that every decision about public safety and our own safety -- our staffing levels, the equipment we use, our response times, how well we perform -- is made by a politician voting on a budget.  We decided we had to get involved." 
Anthony says she's befuddled about the central point driving Firefighters for Ehrhardt: that she doesn't support public safety.  "Nothing could be farther from the truth," Anthony explained.  "I have been fully supportive of both police and firefighters, both publicly and privately."  
She also felt Fraizer was trying to "bully" her when he telephoned.  "He immediately started off demanding an apology, and told me he was going to tell firefighters I don't support them," she explained.  "That's completely untrue, but it's an intimidating charge, especially coming from the president of a large, influential union."
Anthony's private vote against downtown safety cameras during last year's election -- which she admitted in various interviews -- and Ehrhardt's vocal support for public safety largely drove the firefighters' decision, Fraizer told the Heart Beat.

"Next year, we are facing one of the tightest budgets ever, and we're already short staffed, a situation that compromises everyone's safety," he explained.  "The city has funded some firefighter positions with one-time only funds, which puts us in the position of having to get politically involved again this year.  We have to support those candidates and issues we believe are most on board with public safety." 
Brad Fraizer Letter to Helen Anthony
Dear Ms. Anthony,
It was with considerable regret that many of our fire fighters today received your campaign literature which contained unfair inferences regarding the integrity of our local fire fighters.  Your implication that the fire fighters have been promised political favors by Glen Ehrhardt if he were elected is not only offensive, it is demeaning to the men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis to serve their community.
For the record, our endorsement of Glen Ehrhardt came after several days of deliberation and consideration.  You received the same courtesies and interview that were extended to Mr. Ehrhardt.  After consultation with our executive board, and a discussion with our general membership, the fire fighters unanimously concluded that Glen Ehrhardt would best serve the interests of the citizens of the Fifth Ward.
Your stance and vote against safety cameras last April was a factor in our decision.  Let me be clear that our process was fair and deliberate with no consideration given to political patronage or favor.
It is unfortunate that you chose not to return my phone call in early March to discuss the rationale behind our decision but chose instead to denigrate the democratic process employed by our organization.
I believe you owe the fire fighters of this community an apology and immediate retraction of your baseless and unfair comments. I hope you will have the decency to publicly resolve this issue before Tuesday's election.

Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Local 1055
1204 Pannell Street
Columbia, MO 65201


  1. I think the fire fighters and police of this community, those who support this political alliance with the Chamber, owe Helen Anthony an apology, as well as one to the voters. The politicizing of the fire and police departments is appalling. If I vote for Anthony (or last year, for Dudley, Kespohl, and McDavid), does that mean I think less of firefighters and police? It's an unhealthy polarization of the electoral process.

  2. "Your stance and vote against safety cameras last April was a factor in our decision." -- Brad Frazier

    That's the silliest thing I've heard in a long time and speaks volumes regarding the integrity and general intelligence of both Fraizer and the rest of the union members. Every thinking person knows that there is not one shred of empirical evidence that shows government surveillance cameras make us any safer. In fact, there are piles of empirical evidence that show just the opposite.

    That's not to mention the financial argument. We have plans to waste money on silly surveillance cameras while the First Ward has inadequate fire protection due to a shortage at a First Ward fire station. Perhaps Fraizer is excited by the prospect of watching the video of a downtown building burning to the ground due to a lack of fire protection in the ward.

    Even sillier still is that both Ehrhardt and Anthony stated publicly that if elected they would support the camera initiative, so regardless of past support, the issue should be a non-starter for Fraizer and Co. With that said, the First Ward that will be subject to government surveillance under the camera plan, voted overwhelmingly against the cameras. The real question of Anthony should be "when is it ok for a majority to impose its will on a minority?"

    Another aspect of the camera campaign, besides Keep Columbia Safe’s fear mongering with misleading, partial crime statistics to create a false justification for the cameras, is the notion that the camera issue was merely a vehicle on which McDavid, Kespohl, and Dudley could ride to office. This was the plan and the plan worked. A bit of underhanded political genius that speaks volumes. For proof of this one need look no further than the (should-be) illegal ballot language that called for "Safety Cameras" instead of surveillance cameras. What in the hell is a Safety Camera?