Firefighter Michael Archambault is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But the bizarre shoplifting arrest of the El Segundo firefighter, wealthy enough to own a home in exclusive Rolling Hills Estates, has sparked a furious battle.
The hero-turns-heel allegations have made Archambault a metaphor for the El Segundo firefighters' union, its members' staggering $210,000 average compensation in a town so sleepy that fires are rare, and the union's push to merge with the Los Angeles County Fire Department in order to preserve its outsized pay scale.
"Everything about this shoplifting case illustrates what we've been saying for years: These public safety unions have invaded our little town and taken over the political system to enrich themselves," says Michael Robbins, a former El Segundo councilman turned civic watchdog.
"The police and fire unions have developed an incredible sense of entitlement, a feeling that they are royalty and we are just here to fund their grossly inflated salaries and lavish lifestyles. Look at the facts."
Archambault, 52, was arrested on April 12 by Torrance police after he allegedly stole $375 in electronics from a Costco in Torrance. He owns a $1 million ranch-style rambler in Rolling Hills Estates, one of the priciest suburbs in the United States.
El Segundo City Councilwoman Suzanne Fuentes says Archambault typifies the strange problem that residents of this small, middle-class L.A. suburb are confronting: "Only one of 50 members of the El Segundo firefighters' union actually lives in this city. Yet they're trying to control our little Mayberry-by-the-sea."
Archambault earned $208,000 in total compensation last year. According to his arrest report, he was spotted by loss-prevention officers at the Costco at 2751 Skypark Drive in Torrance as he surreptitiously opened a box containing a trash can and stuffed it with a Belkin router, a Motorola modem, earbuds, ink cartridges and a Waterpik Water Flosser.
The fireman then allegedly purchased the trash can for $47.99 — with the electronics hidden inside. He was detained outside the store and handed over to Torrance police. A few hours later he posted $1,000 bail.
No longer blue-collar, El Segundo firefighters — who require only a GED to enter the 10-week firefighter academy program — are among L.A. County's richest citizens.
Their total annual compensation averages $210,000 in a low-crime town of 16,000 residents, which averages fewer than two structure fires a year. Essentially, they are very well paid paramedics. More than 90 percent of their calls are for medical transports.
Robbins says of the alleged shoplifter, "What kind of grueling work schedule does he endure for all this taxpayer money?"
Thanks to lucrative deals granted to the El Segundo Firefighters Association union by the City Council, firefighters must work only two of every six days.
Archambault's workweek is typical: During two consecutive days, amounting to 48 hours, he is paid to sleep for 16 hours, and some of his sleeping is paid as "overtime." He gets the next four days off and the cycle begins again. It's a beautiful government job.
Archambault did not return calls from L.A. Weekly seeking comment. But Robbins says, "He gets to spend most of his time hanging out at home. He drives down to El Segundo once a week, sleeps a big chunk of his working time, and leaves two days later."
Those generous rules and huge salaries were set when the City Council handed a new contract to the union in 2008, in the depths of the recession. Among other things, the City Council awarded the firefighters an 11.25 percent raise over three years. El Segundo Mayor Eric Busch defends the steep raises as being given in exchange for other, long-term concessions.
El Segundo's police and fire unions are two of the largest campaign contributors to City Council candidates. "That's how the public safety game is played," Robbins says. "You elect the people who negotiate your contracts. And then they're supposed to represent the taxpayer when they're already indebted to you?"
About 55 percent of El Segundo Fire Department retirees in the past decade have been awarded either partial or full disability status by the city — a high figure for men who spend most of their workday hanging around a firehouse eating, sleeping or exercising.
Robbins says, "It doesn't make sense."
The economic reward for wangling a "disabled" ruling from El Segundo city officials is huge: Half of your pension income becomes tax-free, both state and federal.
El Segundo Fire Chief Kevin Smith made $357,609 in total compensation last year, although it's not a demanding job. Smith has very little actual firefighting to oversee. But he has never spent time probing the 55 percent "disability" retirements awarded to his force.
Smith insists there isn't any medical fraud in the El Segundo Firefighters Association.
"Heart disease is the No. 1 medical problem for firefighters," he says, although the illness is more associated with hereditary factors, poor eating habits and lack of exercise. "And then come bad backs. It's a tough, physical job that takes its toll on our bodies."
Chris Thomason, president of the El Segundo Firefighters Association, made $256,132 in total compensation last year. Like Smith, he couldn't explain the high disability rate. He laughed at the notion that any union member would engage in medical fraud.
"That's absurd," he tells the Weekly. "Ridiculous. Never happen."
Neither Smith, Thomason, Fuentes nor anyone else in City Hall will reveal if Archambault is still working his regular shift. Smith even refused to release the shift schedule — a public document.
"The city attorney strongly admonished me not to talk about it because Mr. Archambault is entitled to his privacy," Smith tells L.A. Weekly.
City Attorney Mark Hensley confirms that he instructed elected and nonelected officials to maintain silence. He claims Archambault's right to privacy trumps the public's right to know his employment status. "It's an alleged shoplifting case," Hensley says.
It is plainly illegal for a California city attorney such as Hensley to suppress public documents when a government employee is under investigation — a once-common subterfuge by officials that is banned under California's Brown Act.
But special treatment for El Segundo firefighters is not unusual.
"I think they're used to feeling the love from everybody," Fuentes says.
Robbins says the alleged Costco shoplifting incident is an example of the union's culture of entitlement. He says their greedy mindset is behind the union's push to merge with the L.A. County Fire Department.
Last August, the City Council voted 4-1 to reject the merger notion. But the firefighters gathered enough signatures to place it on next year's ballot. The merger would preserve the firefighters' sky-high salaries even if El Segundo has to make budget cuts.
Voters don't know much about this — yet.
But now, the seaside suburb's fiscal watchdogs have a poster boy they can use to educate voters about city employees who, with just a GED and 10 weeks of training, can nail a lucrative career that involves sleeping, going on medical-transport calls and waiting for rare fires.
When the firefighter merger issue appears on the city ballot next spring, Michael Archambault will have stood trial for stealing $375 worth of electronic goodies, or reached a plea deal.
He could have paid for the allegedly stolen Costco items with just eight hours of El Segundo–style firefighting duties. Even fewer, if you count overtime for sleeping.
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