Menlo Park fire district election: Big battle over union issues

Three vs. two for three open seats on board of directors

The line is clearly drawn in the upcoming Menlo Park Fire Protection District board elections, with three seats at stake. Chuck Bernstein, Peter Carpenter and Rex Ianson are running as a slate to defeat the candidates backed by the financial and manpower resources of the firefighters union: Carolyn Clarke and Jack Nelson.

The union issue is particularly relevant at a time when the district and firefighters have been trying to come to agreement on a contract after a years-long impasse, primarily over salary increases.

Chuck Bernstein (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

Peter Carpenter (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

Carolyn Clarke (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

Rexford Ianson (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

Jack Nelson (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)
Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Ianson have all agreed to not accept support of any kind from the unions in this year's election.

The Almanac asked all the candidates for copies of their responses to the questionnaire provided by the San Mateo County Labor Council for use in deciding whether to endorse someone. Both Mr. Nelson and Ms. Clarke refused to disclose their answers on the grounds that the labor council asked candidates not to.

Mr. Bernstein provided his answers to the public; Mr. Ianson and Mr. Carpenter chose to not fill out the questionnaire.

Aside from the question of union endorsement, the candidates have broad goals in common. All cited fiscal stability, maintaining a high level of service, and reaching an agreement with the firefighters over their contract as their top priorities. With the exception of Ms. Clarke, the candidates have extensive experience, whether professional or volunteer, in emergency preparedness.

The district covers Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated areas.

Chuck Bernstein

"The idea of really getting people together to solve our own problems motivates me," Mr. Bernstein said.

Even before he decided to run for the Menlo Park City Council, he said, he was interested in campaigning for the fire district board. He has attended "numerous meetings" to learn how the district works.

His choice of extracurricular activities demonstrates a long-standing interest in disaster preparedness: joining the Willows community emergency response training team, teaching emergency aid for Boy Scout troops, volunteering as treasurer for the Ring the Bell Fund, a nonprofit launched earlier this year to help schools install new fire alarms systems that would connect directly to fire stations, and serving on a community emergency response training advisory group.

"We've been talking about how to integrate a volunteer corps with the command structure," he said. With only about 25 firefighters on duty at one time, he sees a need to expand CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) until thousands of volunteers are trained.

He's hoping his financial background will also be an asset to the fire district.

Peter Carpenter

"Voters have a choice, and I think it's a very clear choice," Mr. Carpenter said, noting that he entered the race at the last minute to prevent a board majority from being in the hands of union-backed members.

"I don't think it's in the public interest to have people (on the board) who are beholden."

But there are other issues he wants to work on as well. Hammering out mutual aid agreements to make sure each community bears its share of maintaining emergency response resources, for example. As some cities, such as Redwood City, choose to close fire stations, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District finds itself responding to emergencies in other jurisdictions on a daily basis, according to Mr. Carpenter.

He also wants to take a look at how to allocate resources now that approximately 80 percent of calls relate to medical rather than fire emergencies. Medics on motorcycles, like those deployed in Florida, may be a good option.

Fire prevention is another key issue. "If there's a fire, it means that somewhere along the way prevention didn't work," he said. "We still can't convince Menlo Park to be forward thinking on (installing) sprinklers."

The downtown area of Menlo Park lacks an adequate water supply for fighting fires, he said, and a recent renovation of the Santa Cruz Avenue irrigation system looked promising until he realized the city was simply improving how it waters the landscaping.

Carolyn Clarke

"I just have this big heart and vision," Ms. Clarke said. As a newcomer to fire district politics, she said she offers honesty and a fresh perspective, along with representation for Belle Haven, a community "which hasn't had much of a voice until lately."

While campaigning for the Menlo Park City Council, she said, a union official as well as current fire board director Rob Silano suggested that if she didn't win, she should run for the fire board.

Will accepting the union's assistance create a conflict of interest should she be elected to the fire board? "I don't believe in being bought for a dollar. You have to do what is right. You have to strive for it," she said.

Another aspect of Ms. Clarke's campaign that has stirred controversy is whether campaign literature implies that she is a certified public accountant by citing her membership in the California Society of CPAs. Although she is not a CPA, you don't have to be one to belong to the society.

She'd like to work on community outreach if elected to "start a movement of preparedness" and also look at pension planning. "CalPERS (the state's retirement system) is a bit of a culprit -- why don't we have options?"

Rex Ianson

Incumbent Rex Ianson, with 36 years as a firefighter and union member, said he learned after accepting union endorsement during his first run for office that it came with the expectation that his votes on the fire board would support the union. So this time he declined.

"Accepting it the first time was a mistake," he said. "Nothing is free."

Ongoing issues for the district to address include funding new equipment to make sure firefighters have enough tools to cover all the upcoming multi-story developments in Menlo Park and ensuring that communities on both sides of U.S. 101 can be reached in a timely manner during emergencies, even if traffic comes to a standstill. The district has made strides in that direction, he said, putting in knockdown walls, which allow fire trucks to go around a collapsed overpass, for example.

As with Mr. Carpenter, he also wants to take a look at how to allocate resources now that the vast majority of calls relate to medical emergencies. He pointed out some drawbacks to the "medics on motorcycles" approach. "You get there quicker, but it's only two personnel. At certain times of day or of the year, it may not be a bad idea." For events such as Stanford football games, the medics could be pre-positioned at strategic spots, he said.

Jack Nelson

"It's not illegal," Mr. Nelson responded when asked whether he saw a conflict of interest between accepting the union's help during a campaign and then voting on union contracts as a board member. "Why can't they have a seat at the table?"

The community should re-elect him because of his experience, he said, noting his service on the fire district's human resources committee and the California Special Districts Association as well as his certification as a Federal Emergency Management Agency trainer. He also joined the new Menlo Park citizens police advisory group.

"I have worked very hard to obtain and maintain the respect of labor, and I still have it," Mr. Nelson said. "I believe in a level playing field."

During his first term on the board, Mr. Nelson said, the district raised its Insurance Services Offices rating to a Class 2 (with Class 1 being the best). The ISO rating reflects the performance of a jurisdiction's fire-fighting resources and has some impact on local fire insurance rates.

The fire district has also remained about $8 million under its Gann spending limit of $40 million a year. A state law known as the "Gann limit" effectively caps appropriations of tax revenue for operational expenditures.

Candidate bios

Chuck Bernstein, 68, CEO, Early Learning Institute. In addition to participating in community emergency response training and co-founding the Willows Citizen Patrol, Mr. Bernstein has volunteered with Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform, the state coalition on special education, and various city advisory groups on the budget and childcare. Education: B.A., Princeton; Ph.D. in languages and linguistics, and MBA, Stanford University.

Peter Carpenter, 73, director, Mission and Values Institute. Mr. Carpenter is a familiar face at fire district meetings, having served about nine years previously on the board. A former smokejumper, he currently volunteers on the boards of numerous nonprofits and contributes to discussions of public policy and government transparency. Education: MBA, University of Chicago; A.B., chemistry, Harvard.

Carolyn Clarke, 58, owner, TaxTime Solutions. Ms. Clarke has volunteered on Menlo Park's housing commission as well as the housing element update steering committee, the county Measure A oversight committee, and with Habitat for Humanity. Education: B.S., business administration/accounting, San Francisco State University.

Rex Ianson, 72, retired firefighter. An incumbent, Mr. Ianson has served on the fire board for eight years. He retired after 36 years as a firefighter and continues to teach classes in urban search and rescue as well as fire training. Education: A.A., fire science, College of San Mateo.

Jack Nelson, 68. Occupation: logistics and corporate safety. An incumbent, Mr. Nelson was first elected to the fire board in 2009. He has taught community emergency response training, serves on the new Menlo Park police advisory group and as fire district liaison to the city of Menlo Park. Education: B.S., business/finance, University of Missouri-Columbia; A.A., fire science, St. Louis Community College.

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Like this comment
Posted by Former Menlo Park Budget Advisory Committee Member
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 22, 2013 at 11:04 am

The Almanac was spot-on in its endorsements for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board. Its endorsements are correct for the following reasons:

1. Qualifications. We are fortunate to have 3 extremely qualified people for the Fire Board. In this particular race, as the Almanac has pointed out, Peter Carpenter, Rex Ianson, and Chuck Bernstein have impressive credentials. Carpenter and Ianson have repeatedly demonstrated exemplary performance in their duties as Fire Board Members. Mr. Bernstein is recognized for his expertise in Emergency Preparedness Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), and pension reform.

In an August 16, 2006 editorial the Almanac praised Mr. Carpenter for his foresightedness in addressing runaway pensions

Web Link

Mr. Carpenter also had the novel idea that since the public pays the costs of pensions that it should be able to provide input to the process

Web Link

Mr. Bernstein, a Menlo Park Icon, is Mr. Fiscal Responsibility. He was a leading member of the Menlo Park Budget Advisory Committee and looked for ways to raise revenue for the City without raising taxes.

On that ill-fated night of February 27, 2007 Mr. Bernstein urgently implored the City Council, led by Mayor Kelly Fergusson, not to give the City employees a 35% increase in pensions because we could not afford the unfunded liability it would create. It was an impassioned speech that reminded the City Council of its responsibility to the residents whom they serve. Unfortunately the City Council ignored Mr. Bernstein’s reasonable arguments and approved a huge increase in unfunded liabilities.

Web Link

If the City Council had only heeded to Mr. Bernstein sage advice we would not have needed Measure L which reversed the City Council’s ill advised and irresponsible decision. Mr. Bernstein was a key member of the Measure L Committee for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform and collected over 400 signatures to place Measure L on the ballot. This was the most signatures collected by any member of the Measure L Committee. Measure L won by 71%, but more importantly it won in every single precinct in Menlo Park. This was unprecedented for a contested Ballot Measure.

2. Commitment. This trio is dedicated to serving the community as evidence by their past community service.

3. Fairness. Contrary to what some would have you believe Carpenter, Ianson, and Bernstein are not against the firefighters. They want an equitable balance that provides fair wages and benefits to our firefighters while ensuring public safety. In fact by keeping pensions and salaries reasonable they are ensuring job stability for current and future generations of firefighters. San Jose has had to lay off many public safety offices due to pension entitlements eating into the operating budget. It is critical to have the balance between entitlements and operating funds so that we can ensure the future viability of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

4. Transparency. With Carpenter, Ianson and Bernstein you have openness and refuse to be coerced or manipulated by the Union. They have no ambitions for higher office and are not subject to partisan political pressure. When Nelson and Clarke refused to disclose their responses to the Union questionnaire, it made their impartiality suspect.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 22, 2013 at 1:45 pm

As someone who has great interest in the FD and ahile this race seems to be about union slate versus non-union slate, it should really be about qualifications. Any elected Board or Council needs leadership.

Peter Carpenter previously served on the Board and has both government and private sector leadership experience which compliments his education (BA & MBA). Chuck Bernstein has experience as a CEO and budget minded individual plus his education (MBA & PhD). Rex Ianson a season Board veteran and firefighter who has experience from his disaster deployments including the World Trade Center.

I'm baffled the way in which Mr. Nelson responded to the question about contributions from the FF union, "It's not illegal." Sounds like a defensive reaction. He asks to be re-elected because of his experience. What has he accomplished that has been noteworthy? And while Ms. Clarke has been involved in the community, her accomplishments don't seem to fill a need at the fire district.

The choice for leadership seems obvious -- Carpenter, Ianson and Bernstein.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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