The Menlo Park Fire Protection District serves Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and a large swath of unincorporated San Mateo County. In this election, five candidates are vying for three seats, including one being vacated by Stephen Nachtsheim after only one term on the board.
Incumbents Rex Ianson and Jack Nelson are seeking re-election and are being challenged by former board member Peter Carpenter and newcomers Chuck Bernstein and Carolyn Clarke, who last year made an unsuccessful run for the Menlo Park City Council.
Although there are other issues, this race is boiling down to a fight over whether candidates should accept contributions and campaign help from the firefighters union, whose contract is expected to be up for approval in the near future.
Candidates Carpenter, Ianson and Bernstein are working together and have emphasized that they have refused any contributions or in-kind help from the union. Their reason: Fire board members should represent the best interests of the residents of the district, not the firefighters union, especially when it comes time to approve a new contract. This is important, they say, since it appears that the district and union may finally get to the bargaining table after going without a contract for the last seven years.
Ms. Clarke and Mr. Nelson, also running as a team, unabashedly admit that they are getting union support and see nothing wrong in it, although both refused to share their answers to a union questionnaire with the Almanac, saying the union asked them not to make their answers public.
During her Almanac interview, Ms. Clarke said she decided to enter the race after a firefighters union official suggested it as she was leaving a union interview during her run for Menlo Park City Council last year. Mr. Nelson received union help four years ago in his first campaign for the board, and often votes with Rob Silano, who was elected with union help two years ago. If Mr. Nelson and Ms. Clarke were elected it would give the union a 3-2 majority on the board, an outcome we do not believe would be in the best interest of fire district residents.
Mr. Carpenter has made no secret that he is in the race to prevent a union takeover of the board. An Atherton resident, he previously served nine years on the board and is deeply knowledgeable about fire board business. He is also a crusader for transparency, who convinced a prior board to make any proposed contract public to give residents to scrutinize it before it is ultimately passed by the board. Even his opponent Mr. Nelson admitted that Mr. Carpenter is qualified and would do a good job.
Rex Ianson, of Menlo Park, who served 36 years with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, has a huge store of institutional knowledge about the workings of the district. And although he was a member of the union during his years as a firefighter and accepted union help in the run for his first term, he says he now firmly believes that he cannot accept the union's endorsement or support and remain an independent board member.
Chuck Bernstein lives in Menlo Park and operates his own teaching business in Palo Alto, with 140 employees. He has an MBA from Stanford and has worked for Fortune 500 companies. He also is a huge fan of, and participant in, the district's CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training. He said that if the board actively seeks more participants, CERT-qualified residents could be the backbone of the district's coverage when a disaster strikes here. He was appointed by the fire chief to serve on the CERT Advisory Board and currently serves as secretary.
In individual interviews, all the candidates voiced hope that the district's ongoing mediation with the firefighters would lead to a new contract soon. But it is perplexing that two candidates for public office, Ms. Clarke and Mr. Nelson, believe the public doesn't have the right to know how they responded to the union's questions. If the two sides arrive at a possible contract, we think residents of the district will be far better off if Peter Carpenter, Rex Ianson and Chuck Bernstein are elected to the board. We believe they can be trusted to work out a deal that will be fair to the firefighters and district residents.