Fire district board approves four-year contract with firefighters

Board may discuss censure of Chuck Bernstein in September

The long running dispute between firefighters and the management of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is officially over, but the discussion by members of the governing board is not.

On a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, Aug. 25, with member Chuck Bernstein dissenting, the district's governing board approved a memorandum of understanding that effectively approves a new four-year contract with Local 2400 of the San Mateo County Firefighters.

The firefighters have been working without a contract since 2007.

But after the majority decision to approve the contract, the board voted again, this time unanimously, to add to the agenda of a September board meeting a discussion on censuring Mr. Bernstein. Member Peter Carpenter asked the board to consider a censure and, in an agenda item for the Aug. 25 meeting, cites board policies and procedures that govern decorum and a member's conduct and responsibilities.

In voting with the majority on the censure matter, Mr. Bernstein said he would "welcome a discussion of what's permitted and what's not permitted."

Section 5.8 of the board's policies and procedures says that members "shall observe" a code of conduct, which begins as follows: "A Fire District Board Member should strive to: 1) Refuse to make commitments on any matter which should come before the Board as a whole."

In explaining his dissatisfaction with the contract, Mr. Bernstein wrote an eight-page letter to the public on Aug. 3, 2015, that included this sentence: "Notwithstanding my pride in the quality of service we offer, I will vote against the proposed contract."

In his letter and at the board meeting, Mr. Bernstein went to great lengths to praise the firefighters and the qualities they bring to their employment.

Contract provisions

Under the terms of the contract, firefighters' pay will rise by 18 percent over four years, with total compensation to cost the district around $9.8 million, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

In 2014, the district also paid its firefighters $1.5 million in penalties after a determination by the state Public Employee Relations Board that the district had engaged in piecemeal bargaining.

Under the new deal, firefighters would pay 12 percent of pension costs, retroactive to 2014-15, up from the 9 percent they are paying now. This will save the district around $1.2 million over four years, the chief said. Firefighters would also pay 10 percent of the costs for health care coverage.

The contract includes a stipend for firefighters choosing to live within 60 miles of the district, starting at $200 a month and rising to $300 by the end of the contract

In dissent

Amid praise by board members to the negotiators for having reached a deal, Mr. Bernstein was alone in criticizing it. "I wish I could join the love fest," he said. "I think we're going to spend the decade regretting (approving) it."

Mr. Bernstein claims that the contract is not telling constituents the true cost of the contract, that it institutionalizes overtime as regular pay, that it's misleading about the pension plan, and that a ripple effect will raise officers pay in line with the firefighters' raises.

Payroll could rise to 70 percent of the budget, he said. "It risks not being sustainable anymore," he said. "I'm sorry I haven't been more persuasive and more effective ... I think this is not the right answer. I think it is a mistake."

Member Rex Ianson said the raises amount to 2 percent a year, and that firefighters continued working at high performance levels despite not having a contract. "I think that what's in the contract is reasonable," he said.

Mr. Carpenter defended the board majority's decision. "Were trying to recognize the professionals we have for the skills they have" in the interest of keeping them employed in the Menlo Park district, he said. In negotiating, the district had to comply with the law and engage with the union in finding a deal, he said. "We met someplace in the middle," he said.

"This was not a rushed process. Everyone has a piece of this contract," said board President Virginia Chang Kiraly. "This is not a love fest."

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