Troubling trends have developed over the last few years in the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. Among them: district board members' delegation of authority to the fire chief that rightfully belongs to the board, including policy decisions that guide the creation of new programs, and decisions resulting in the spending of significant public funds; an unproductive increase in antagonism between the board and officials in the towns within the district's boundaries; and a growing lack of transparency.
The Almanac has reported on a number of instances in which these trends are evident, as well as on details in a San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report critical of the district's lack of a strategic plan, and its bypassing of city governments to negotiate directly with developers for the payment of impact fees.
The district has done this negotiating despite state law giving municipal or county government the authority to approve impact fees for special districts. The Grand Jury report raises ethical concerns with this practice, stating, "The District exercises enforcement of local and state ordinances and statutes, and reviews the construction plans of businesses located within its boundaries, including Facebook, for compliance with applicable codes. Accepting donations of cash, or soliciting impact fees directly from these businesses, can create the appearance of favorable treatment or disparate application of rules and laws."
The four candidates running for three open seats on the fire board this November, have made it clear that they believe the district needs to do a better job of providing the public – and board members themselves – with key information, and three emphasize the need to put in place a strategic plan to guide the district responsibly and with greater accountability into the future. All four of these candidates would do a good job in helping the district get back on track in these and other areas it has lost its way in, but we believe that incumbents Chuck Bernstein and Robert Jones, and candidate Jim McLaughlin are the best choices for voters at this time.
Candidate Sean Ballard has been involved with district-sponsored emergency preparedness programs, and is a member of the district's strategic planning committee. As a Menlo Park resident, he would be a third or fourth (if Bernstein is re-elected) board member who lives in Menlo Park or the nearby unincorporated area of that city. We sincerely hope that he continues his important contributions to the fire district and jumps into the race in two years when the terms of two other Menlo Park residents are up.
We strongly endorse Jim McLaughlin of Atherton for a seat on the fire board. A former chief with the California Highway Patrol, McLaughlin has years of experience in public agency strategic planning – and insists on the need for a strong plan and its regular review. He also has deep concerns over the district's lack of spending transparency and accountability, noting that in his many hours of reviewing district records past and present, he has seen "expenditures of millions of dollars with very little documentation."
As someone who worked for years "in an environment where everything gets measured," he expressed amazement that the current board approves an annual budget – this year, with nearly $55 million in spending – with no breakdown of programs and their costs.
If elected, he promises to push for a more transparent budgetary process, and told The Almanac: "I would not vote for budgets without proper program support. (The board) should not be voting to support a program until it is fully fleshed out."
Chuck Bernstein of Menlo Park deserves a second term on the board. He often casts the lone dissenting vote on board actions, the most recent example being his opposition to a new five-year contract for firefighters that increases already rich compensation packages for each firefighter by an average of $58,726 annually.
He believes the boost in compensation was too high, and believes some of the money that will go into higher compensation would be better directed toward the district's capital improvement fund, which will be tapped to pay for necessary but costly fire station building projects down the road.
The district's lack of transparency, he told The Almanac, "is an intentional strategy. ... I think the tendency (for public agencies) is to exclude the public as much as possible." The district, he said, needs to do a better job of informing the public and the board about its spending and its programs.
Robert Jones, who was appointed last year to fill a vacancy, is a valuable member of the board, and should be supported for a full four-year term. He is the first East Palo Alto resident to serve on the board since 2003, and offers a perspective to the district that has often been missing when the board was made up only of residents west of the Bayshore Freeway.
Jones supports greater transparency in the budget process and, as someone with experience in strategic planning, understands the need for such a plan to guide the district forward.
Jones, along with McLaughlin, criticizes the district's approach in going around the cities to negotiate impact fees with developers. "How do you get rid of that appearance that we're in your hip pocket?" he said in an interview with The Almanac.
Both Jones and McLaughlin say they will push for going back to cities to provide the evidence those public officials need to support imposing impact fees on developers. That would be an important step forward. As McLaughlin put it, "The district did a terrible job of making its case" to the towns in its effort to have them require impact fees that would cover district costs for new development.
McLaughlin, whose home town is in an unfortunate, antagonistic relationship with the district over the town's concerns that Atherton taxpayers contribute far more revenue to the district than it gets in services, also would work to ease the tension between the two parties if he is elected, he said, although he doesn't support the concept of the town separating from the district. "I think the district has a somewhat toxic relationship with all the cities, and the county," he said.
He's right, and that's just one of the troubling trends in evidence at the fire district today. We will expect much needed movement in the right direction with new leadership on the fire board come December.