continued Saathoff flexed his political muscle again in 2004, when the union supported Dick Murphy for mayor. Not leaving well enough alone, Murphy's opponent Ron Roberts publicly attacked Saathoff, saying that he had cut a private deal with Murphy to not alter the pension board in exchange for the endorsement.
Murphy and Saathoff denied the allegations, and Saathoff got the last word when he directed his union to spend $111,766.40 on television ads attacking Roberts in the final ten days of the campaign. Roberts came in third place, behind Murphy and write-in candidate Donna Frye. These expenditures were the deathblow to Roberts's mayoral dreams.
In next Tuesday's special primary election, the union has endorsed Kevin Faulconer -- Zucchet's 2002 opponent -- for the District 2 vacancy and Benjamin Hueso for the District 8 vacancy. But the union decided to sit out the mayoral face-off between Jerry Sanders and Donna Frye.
Other complaints against Saathoff and the union focus on a lack of openness. Saathoff, who's acknowledged as extremely bright yet verbose, has been circumspect since his indictment. Even the "Message from the President" on the union's website focuses solely on the mundane issue of the website's creation.
"Welcome to our new website!! We couldn't be more excited to announce the launch of the San Diego City Fire Fighters, Local 145 website. This is a dynamic site that took many hours of hard work and dedication to develop."
The undated message goes on to address member communication.
"Our primary goal, when we set out to develop this website was to increase the level of communication we have with our members. We constantly strive to get you the most updated information in a timely manner. This tool will help us do that."
But Vandeveld takes exception to claims that the website offers effective communication, indicating that the only way to know what's going on is to show up at union meetings. "It is your right to show up at Union meetings, not your obligation," Vandeveld writes on his website. "If you are out of town, can't get child care, or just don't see any need to debate the issue, you can still vote on the matter without attending the meeting. Let's move into the modern world of maximum participation where every voice matters."
Vandeveld goes on. "We're tired of the blanket of deception, the half truths and the all out blatant lies? When was the last time that you were given any handouts at a Union meeting? You don't get handouts. The current leadership doesn't want anything in writing that will be contrary to whatever he has to say to manipulate the vote, he doesn't want to be held accountable, and doesn't want something that can be used against him later. From now on, it will be published."
Another firefighter, who did not want to comment on the record, said he was unable to find copies of meeting minutes purported to be available to members on the website.
When Perkins was asked for background information on the union, ballot statements, and ballots, they were not forthcoming. "I sent your request to Ron Saathoff and Chet Bertell," said Perkins.
In the past month, since documents the pension board recently released became public, the heat has been turned up on Saathoff. One e-mail, dated March 24, 2003, was sent by Sheila Leone [now Sheila Jacobs], the pension system's legal counsel, to the pension system's general counsel, Loraine Chapin. It recounts the reaction of Robert Blum, the system's fiduciary counsel, to Saathoff's $2530.23-per-month pension increase:
"Bob was shown Ron's 'presidential leave' benefit. He called it 'absolutely breathtaking.' "
The "presidential leave" benefit refers to the practice of including the union salary with the city salary when determining the amount of the pension.
A May 13, 2004, legal memorandum from law firm Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek attorney Michael Leone (Sheila Leone's ex-husband) to Lawrence Grissom, the retirement system's administrator, also addresses the presidential leave issue, raising legal concerns that could bolster Dumanis's conflict-of-interest action against Saathoff:
"[T]he adoption of the 'presidential leave' ordinance affecting Board member Saathoff presents a significantly more probable basis for invalidation of the [pension] agreement.... [I]t appears that adoption of this ordinance implicated only Board member Saathoff's interests..."
But at least at the moment, these matters seem little more than bumps in the road for Saathoff, who by all accounts is still powerful, with no heir apparent. A conviction on conflict-of-interest charges may be the only way Saathoff will lose power.
A Vietnam veteran, Saathoff is a former Green Beret who received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. When asked early this summer how he felt about the legal and political battles he was facing, Saathoff referred to his war experience. "At least then I knew who was shooting at me."
Contact Scott Barnett at [email protected]
Read The City's Burning Down and We Won't Get Our Fire Trucks Until January -- an interview with Mike Aguirre by Scott Barnett and Matt Potter.