Road to Recall: Fire board started laying the groundwork for standalone department over three years ago

This is the second in a series of articles offering historical context for the April 9th recall election. The first article, looking at the decision to dissolve the standalone department and farm out fire services, is here.

When did the fire board majority start its efforts to oust Cal Fire in order to return to a standalone fire department?

Reading through posts on TalkAbout and reading articles in the Half Moon Bay Review and Patch gives you different answers. Some people point to last Fall, when the Fire Board formally voted to embark on reconstituting a stand alone department. Others point to the Spring and Summer of 2012, when the number of citizens at Fire Board meetings–almost entirely opposed to a standalone department–grew so large that the meetings had to be moved from the regular conference room to an echoey fire engine bay. I’ve even heard that it all started with the appointment of Mike Alifano, the newest director of the Coastsi de Fire Protection District and one of the three members (along with Doug Macintosh and Gary Riddell) facing a recall election.

In fact, the efforts to oust Cal Fire started well before most citizens began paying attention to fire board politics, well before anyone considered the possibility of a recall election.

So, when *did* the fire board majority start its efforts to oust Cal Fire? There are two answers: “Immediately after Cal Fire was selected” (working outside the Fire Board) and “January 2010” (working within the Fire Board).

 

Efforts to oust Cal Fire immediately after Cal Fire was selected

Since Cal Fire was chosen to provide fire services in the beginning of 2007 the board has been split between those who supported the Cal Fire contract and those who opposed it. The two factions have voted in consistent and predictable ways since that time up until this day. It is just a question of which faction had the majority of seats and any given time, and from the time Cal Fire was selected until January 2010 the pro-Cal Fire faction had the greater number of votes

During this period Local 2400, the union that dominates fire services in San Mateo County and which represented the fire department employees prior to Cal Fire, undertook extensive efforts to counter the Fire Board’s decisions. The union succeeded in undertaking a referendum to undo the Fire Board’s decision to contract with Cal Fire and to turn the question over to the public for a direct vote, but this petition was rejected by the Fire Board, saying the wording of the referendum was misleading to the public. The union sued the district to overturn that decision but lost, with the judge agreeing that the information in the petition was misleading to voters. The union appealed but lost again. Finally, in May of 2008, a year and a half after Cal Fire was selected, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the matter. The next month Cal Fire began staffing the Coastside fire stations.

Two of the current directors subject to the recall election were active in this effort. Gary Riddell was a vocal supporter of the referendum and was critical of Cal Fire. Doug Mackintosh, who was on the board at the time and generally speaks in measured words, was one of the first people to sign the referendum and was the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit against the Fire District. After Riddell’s election to the Fire Board in 2009, largely on an anti-Cal Fire platform, he joined Mackintosh and Chris Cilia to form the core of the anti-Cal Fire faction, which, due to elections and a reduction in the number of board members following the merger of the Half Moon Bay and Point Montara departments, became the board majority in January 2010.

 

The anti-Cal Fire board majority begins its efforts on the board to reconstitute a standalone district

Moving back to a standalone fire department is a highly complex process involving hiring, work rules, management structures, and health care and retirement issues for both past and future employees. The are many complex, often technical decisions to be made. Complicating matters is the Brown Act, which makes many non-public meetings between board members illegal and forces much of the decision-making process into the open. Thus all of these issues would have to be addressed in the context of board meetings.

In January 2010, the first meeting after the election in which the anti-Cal Fire faction held a majority, embarked on this long process, setting up a subcommittee initially called “Alternative Fire Protection Management and Staffing Models.” The word “Alternative” was dropped from the title during the board’s discussion as it was deemed too prejudicial to the outcome of the subcommittee’s deliberations, but it seemed nevertheless clear to most board members and to Cal Fire Chief John Ferreira, who gave a spirited defense of his  agency’s performance at the end of the meeting, that this was the formal beginning of efforts to replace Cal Fire.

Below is an edited video from that January 2010 meeting, provided courtesy of CFPD. For brevity’s sake I have deleted public comment from Vince Williams and Lane Lees and have trimmed the director’s comments while still allowing them ample context to make their points clearly. (You can see the unedited video here.)

In this three year old video you will hear many of the same claims and counterclaims used in the today’s debate on the recall. At the end of the discussion (not shown in my edited version) three anti-Cal Fire directors–Mackintosh, Cilia, and Riddell–appoint themselves to the Fire Protection Management and Staffing Models subcommittee and are tasked with bringing back options to the full board.

The fire board directors comment on the proposal to form this subcommittee during the first eleven and a half minutes of this seventeen minute video. Cal Fire Chief Ferreira’s comments start at around 11:40.

 

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