Wednesday, June 6, 2012

(SAN MATEO) Board members fire back at grand jury

By Mark Noack - Half Moon Bay Review

Defending their actions, a majority of Coastside Fire Protection District board members last week poked holes in a blistering San Mateo County civil grand jury report.

The April report criticized the fire board for investigating how to sever ties with the state fire agency and bring back a stand-alone department. The report concluded that it was nonsensical to bring back local management when CalFire was providing superior service at a cost savings.

But in their May 23 meeting, three board members complained that the report was riddled with inaccuracies. Director Mike Alifano questioned figures in the report, such as the low number of cliff rescues and the staff turnover under CalFire.

“If (the grand jury) can’t get their facts straight, how can we run with this?” he said. “It just seems wrong.”

The grand jury has no power to influence district policy, but the report has become a political lightning rod for the fire board’s leadership. The Coastside fire district is required to submit a response to the report in the coming weeks.

Last month, the board worked on a draft response that largely concurred with most of the grand jury’s findings. But the board split when it came to the report’s recommendations, particularly the suggestion that it should immediately sign a new three-year contract with CalFire.

In the minority on the board, Director Gary Burke used the opportunity to once again emphasize that, in his view, CalFire had a stellar record on the Coastside. There have been no lawsuits or complaints so far.

That wasn’t the case under the Half Moon Bay Fire Protection District, which was rocked by infighting and legal battles over its final years of operation. Starting in 2006, a series of fire chiefs urged the board to create the Coastside fire district and contract out services through CalFire, a process that was completed two years later.

“Overall, the citizens and taxpayers have received outstanding service,” Burke said. “A number of people are asking why we’re now doing this.”

“This” includes hiring consultants to devise a plan for going it alone. Tonight, fire board directors are meeting with those consultants to hear their plan for running a new department. The presentation is expected to include salary and benefits schedules, work rules and department policies.

he purpose of the exercise, Alifano said, was to assert control and retain local firefighters. “I want the best level of service for the community,” he said. “If it’s with CalFire, and we can get them to do what we want them to do, then great.”

Last week, board members asked CalFire management staff to double-check many of the numbers in the grand jury report. Alifano questioned the purported $2 million that the district saved when it switched to the state agency, saying the public had to sacrifice service in trade.

The board directed Chief John Ferreira, a longtime CalFire employee who manages day-to-day operations on the Coastside, to include the last 10 years of data in the district’s response.

At times, order at the board meeting broke down as fire directors argued between each other or with the people in the audience. Several public speakers reprimanded the board members for trying to dismantle its CalFire contract, and some threatened a recall election.

1 comment:

Hgh said...

The Coastside fire district is required to submit a response to the report in the coming weeks.