Four candidates are running for three four-year terms on the board of directors of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which covers Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and nearby unincorporated areas of San Mateo County.
The candidates are: current board president Chuck Bernstein of Menlo Park, who was first elected five years ago; incumbent Robert Jones of East Palo Alto, who was appointed by the board in October 2017 when Rex Ianson resigned; Atherton resident Jim McLaughlin, who served on the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury that produced a recent critical report on the fire district; and Menlo Park resident Sean Ballard, who serves as the resident representative on the district's Strategic Planning Subcommittee and is active in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
In addition to Bernstein and Jones, other members of the five-person board are Menlo Park resident Rob Silano and unincorporated West Menlo Park resident Virginia Chang-Kiraly, who each have two more years in their terms; and Peter Carpenter, whose term ends this year and who chose not to run for re-election.
The fire district has a budget with about $55 million in revenues, mostly from property taxes. Its boundaries include about 29 square miles, including 12 square miles of marshland and the San Francisco Bay, according to the district's website.
The Almanac recently interviewed the four candidates.
McLaughlin retired from the California Highway Patrol as chief of the agency's Planning and Enforcement Division. He said he became interested in the fire district when he read press reports about the district's purchase of a $4.6 million home next to its Almendral Avenue fire station in Atherton.
He went on to serve a one-year term on the Civil Grand Jury, and "spent almost a year looking at the district in depth," including studying hundreds of documents and years of board meeting videos, he said. "There were a number of things that caught my attention," he said, and he decided serving on the district's board would be a good use of his time and his years in management of the CHP.
"I thought I had something to offer the district and the citizens who live in the district," he said.
McLaughlin said he would like to see some changes made in how the district operates. Board members, he said, "act on very sparse information"; examples include giving preliminary approval to a budget without seeing more than an 11-page executive summary, and never seeing that budget broken down into programs. "I see expenditures of millions of dollars with very little documentation," he said.
Reports made to the board need more information, especially on costs, he said. "They should not be voting to support a program until it is fully fleshed out."
Another example, he said, is the district's purchase of nearly $20 million in real estate without first adopting a real estate acquisition plan.
McLaughlin said he also would not have supported approval of a five-year contract for firefighters because the long-term agreement means newly elected board members will not have a chance to negotiate a contract during their first terms.
He said he believes some of the benefits that go to firefighters need to be examined, such as the monthly bonus (which will go up to $500 a month by 2020) they receive if they live within 60 air miles -- rather than 60 highway miles -- of the district. "I don't know how that benefits the district to have that many people living that far away," he said. "If you're going to be doing a proximity pay, it has to be more meaningful."
McLaughlin said he sees "a level of dysfunction" in how the board operates, making "decisions sort of on the fly." He suggested looking at other well-run fire districts, including in San Ramon and Sacramento, as examples of how to operate.
McLaughlin said he believes Atherton should not withdraw from the fire district. "I think that would be a bad idea," he said. It could be hard for Atherton to get the same quality of service it gets now, and could harm the district's ability to provide service in the rest of the district, he said.
However, he thinks the district "has been tone-deaf" to the jurisdictions within its boundaries.
After serving for a year on the fire board, Jones said he has found areas where "I feel like I can make a difference" for the district. One area, he said, is the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, which he knows from the inside, having served on its executive board.
Jones is the first fire board member from East Palo Alto since 2003 and, district officials say, the first African-American fire board member in the district's history.
Jones said he believes the fire district should take another look at its current policy of soliciting impact fees directly from developers to pay what district officials say are the costs to the district of the developments.
"There's the impression that we can be bought off, based on what the grand jury said," he noted. The impact fees, he said, should be collected by the jurisdictions within the district's boundaries, and he wants district officials to go back to those towns to negotiate for the fees.
Otherwise, he said, "how do you get rid of the appearance that we're in your hip pocket" when dealing with developers?
Jones said he thinks the houses the district has recently purchased -- to possibly be used some day to expand fire stations -- should be maintained so they don't look abandoned. Neighbors, he noted, have complained about the appearance of the district-owned houses. If the properties won't be used for years, they could be rented to the public, he said, adding that if they are going to be needed sooner, it might be better to allow firefighters or police officers to take advantage of them for short-term use such as a place to sleep between double shifts.
Jones said he realizes the district has benefited from the allocation of property taxes made to it after Proposition 13 passed in 1978 as property values have risen. However, he said, the district has high maintenance and operation costs.
"There will come a rainy day at some point," he said.
The district also needs to make expensive improvements in its fire stations, he said. "Once we've got all these improvements in place ... then revisiting" the property tax allocations might be appropriate.
However, he said, "once it's taken away, how do you get it back?"
Bernstein said he's learned a lot since he was first elected to the fire board five years ago, especially in his last year while serving as board president. He originally ran, he said, because he wanted to make the volunteer CERT group stronger and to reform some of the district's financial procedures.
While "it's been difficult for me to make much progress," he said he believes he has improved his ability to navigate the process.
"We need outside, independent voices on the board," said Bernstein. He has often found himself casting the only dissenting vote on actions, as he recently did for a new five-year contract for firefighters that raised the district's annual spending on each of the 102 members of the union by $58,726.
One reason Bernstein said he opposed the contract is that it takes money away from other district priorities, such as replacing some aging fire stations. He said the district should be setting aside more money each year to pay for the capital projects.
He also criticized some of the benefits, citing as an example the extra pay firefighters get for living within 60 air miles of the district. Proximity pay, he said, might have been a good addition to the firefighters' contract if it resulted in an effective result -- for example, if it specified 60 highway miles rather than air miles -- and if it had been used in negotiations as a means to control salaries levels, which he believes are now too high.
Another problem Bernstein sees, he said, is a lack of transparency within the district in providing information to the public. The meeting on the firefighters' contract was posted only 24 hours before the meeting, and no more than an 11-page "executive summary" of the budget was provided even to board members before the board gave it preliminary approval.
"The lack of transparency is an intentional strategy," Bernstein said. "I think in general government agencies don't want people looking into their business. I think the tendency is to exclude the public as much as possible."
Bernstein said he disagrees with the grand jury finding that the fire district shouldn't be soliciting impact fees directly from developers, which the report said "raises ethical issues."
"I don't think that was unethical at all," Bernstein said. "What I think would be unethical is to have our taxpayers subsidizing Facebook."
Bernstein did admit that "the district did a poor job of justifying the impact fees" to the towns within its boundaries, which state law says should collect impact fees and forward them to a special district. "I think we could have done a better job of calculating" how much the fees should be, he said.
Bernstein said the property tax allocations that give the fire district a bigger share of property tax revenues than the jurisdictions it serves are not fair, "but they are what they are. I don't think they're going to change," he said.
"I think the district could be more responsible than it has been in spending its money. We could spend more money on public safety if we were less lavish on some other things," he said.
"I don't think it's a satisfying life unless there's an aspect of public service," Ballard said in response to the question of why he is running for a seat on the fire board.
The other reason, he said, is that he thinks he can contribute as someone who has had a career in finance. "Finance is pretty much a second language to me. I speak that language well," he said.
Ballard said he got involved with the fire district through CERT, on whose executive board he has served. He applied for the fire board seat vacated when Rex Ianson resigned, and was tied with the eventual appointee, Robert Jones, for several rounds of voting.
Since January, Ballard has served as the resident representative on the district's Strategic Planning Subcommittee. "That has helped me really understand the operational aspects of the district," he said.
"I like to call myself a suspicious outsider," Ballard said. "The district has an incredible amount of money, an immense amount of money," he said. "It's money that came from taxpayers, over 90 percent of that. I think the district needs to be accountable for that."
Ballard said there needs to be "some fence-mending" with the towns within the district's boundaries, which district officials sidelined by going directly to developers to negotiate impact fees. "I don't like the optics of it," he said of the direct negotiations, which the Civil Grand Jury criticized over ethical concerns. He said district officials need to lay out more specifics about the impacts, and credibly explain why the district doesn't have the money to pay for them.
Ballard said the district could be more transparent in providing information to the public about things such as upcoming meetings and details of budgets. "I think that needs to be a stronger process for the district," he said, adding, "It would be great if there was more involvement" by the public.
The district needs to take a fresh look at doing things, such a providing response to medical calls, in nontraditional ways, he said. It needs to "get away from the idea that a vehicle the size of a city bus" has to respond to all calls.
In New York City, where he lived for many years, small 5-foot-wide vehicles were used for emergency medical response, he said.
"Sending a little truck first doesn't stop you from sending a bigger one later," he said.
At is.gd/MPF_elect see video statements by all four candidates recorded by the MidPen Media Center.
Civic, volunteer activities: Resident representative, Menlo Park Fire Protection District's Strategic Planning Committee; executive board member, Citizens' Emergency Response Team; member, Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team; volunteer, Boy Scouts of America, Menlo Park City School District and Sequoia Union High School District.
Education: Bachelor's degree in economics from Brigham Young University.
Work: Chief executive officer and managing partner of Eigenvector Capital.
Time in area: Lived in Menlo Park from 1981 to 1995, returned in 2014.
Family: Two sons, ages 16 and 13.
Civic, volunteer activities: Member, San Mateo County countywide oversight board for redevelopment districts dissolution; advisory board and Willows neighborhood steering committee for Citizens' Emergency Response Team; member, San Mateo County Child Care Task Force; member, Just Us (East Palo Alto anti-crime citizen action group); member and chair, California Special Education Commission.
Education: Stanford University, master's degree in business administration and doctorate in languages and linguistics; Princeton University, bachelor's degree in French and English literature; l'Universite de Strasbourg, France, certificate in French culture.
Work: Chief executive officer/founder, Early Learning Institute (child care, private schools).
Time in area: Resident since 1968 (at current address since 1975).
Family: Married to Candace Hathaway, two adult sons.
Civic, volunteer activities: Board member, Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto; board member, East Palo Alto Senior Center, Inc.; board member, OICW (now JobTrain); member of committees that work for street improvements, child care, environmental protection, economic development, housing development and anti-drugs efforts.
Education: San Jose State University, bachelor's degree in psychology and master's degree in counselor education.
Work: Executive director and co-founder, EPA CAN DO (East Palo Alto Community Alliance and Neighborhood Development Organization).
Time in area: Since 1980 in East Palo Alto.
Family: Married to Winnie Hinckson-Jones, three adult children.
Website: In progress. Email is [email protected]
Civic, volunteer activities: Member and chair, Atherton Transportation Committee; member, San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.
Education: University of California, Davis, bachelor's degree in agricultural and managerial economics; FBI National Academy; Northwestern University, Center for Public Safety - Contemporary Public Safety Executive Management.
Work: Retired from California Highway Patrol, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Time in area: Atherton since 2014.
Family: Married to Cathy McMurtry, two adult children.