Despite an attempt by fire board member Virginia Chang-Kiraly to smooth things over, the Atherton City Council voted unanimously on March 15 to send a strongly worded letter to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, berating it for not including the town in a study of fire station locations.
The letter, addressed to fire board President Peter Carpenter and signed by Atherton Mayor Mike Lempres, was unanimously approved by the City Council as it had originally been drafted. It addressed a study by the Citygate consulting firm about future fire station locations.
Before council members discussed the letter, they watched a video clip from the Feb. 21 fire board meeting in which the fire board reviewed and accepted a report on the Citygate study.
In the clip, board member Rob Silano repeatedly asks that the report be forwarded to the city and county managers in the areas the fire district covers -- Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and some adjacent unincorporated areas of San Mateo County -- for input.
Board President Carpenter says: "Not their input, just to inform them. We're not asking them for input."
Mr. Silano and Mr. Carpenter then go back and forth, with Mr. Silano repeating: "I'd like to hear their opinion, their city and town managers."
"I don't want to solicit their input," Mr. Carpenter says, "because it's not their decision to make."
"If you're asking people for input, then you're putting yourself in the position to say, OK given the input, we need to make a different decision," President Carpenter says. "If they get a letter saying that we would like their input, then they could reasonably expect that we'd do something with that input."
The discussion finally ends with Mr. Silano saying, for at least the eighth time, that he wants feedback. "I'd like to know how they feel," he says.
"Feel free to ask them," says Mr. Carpenter.
There was no further discussion of the issue at the fire board meeting and Atherton City Manager George Rodericks said he was told he would be sent a copy of the study but never received one.
At the council meeting, fire board member Virginia Chang-Kiraly, the district's liaison to Atherton, asked the council to put off sending the letter. "We're not going to move any station," she said. "This was just information only; no decision was made."
The district knows, she said, that it "will have to have public input of every kind" before moving or closing any station.
"I think we've enjoyed a great relationship," she said about joint meetings that have been held by the fire board and Atherton council. "I just want us to continue the good work. At the end of the day we're here to serve the residents."
Atherton Mayor Lempres said he found the idea that the fire district did not want input from the communities it covers "unconscionable" and "really troubling."
Councilman Rick DeGolia said the comments "made by your current board president ... can only be said to be inflammatory."
"We specifically asked to be involved in any assessment" involving services to Atherton, he said. "Your president not only didn't want us to be involved, but he specifically stated that we should not be."
"We're very open to working with you on that, but there's a problem," he said.
The Citygate study's conclusions include eventually moving Atherton's only fire station out of the town.
The study also concludes that a station in Atherton's new town center would provide overlapping coverage. The town's letter says that item answers a question the town "had not asked." "Atherton had reached this same conclusion previously and instead the Town requested an emergency medical response unit, participation in its (emergency operations center), or planning for future growth to expand services to residents," the letter says.
In a series of emails, including one with the subject "When letters are written by people ignorant of the ways in which emergency resources are managed," President Carpenter insisted that the letter had factual inaccuracies and the town misunderstood the study, which, he said, did look at the other options for a fire district presence in the town center.
The report states its charge was to: "Determine the benefit of locating an additional fire station at the Atherton Town Center that includes one added engine." It does not mention looking at any other aspect of a fire district presence in that location.
Doing the study without input from the town is a "blatant lack of regard" for its concerns and "disheartening and counterproductive," the letter says.