The race for a seat on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board is heating up, with incumbents Virginia Chang Kiraly and Rob Silano facing a challenge by longtime former board member Peter Carpenter and Sean Ballard, who was the resident representative of the district's finance committee last year and the strategic planning committee in 2018.
Carpenter and Ballard said they are running because of board dysfunction and micromanagement, which they claim is stifling the district. The board "needs to be refreshed," Ballard said.
The fire district serves Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and surrounding unincorporated communities.
Carpenter previously served on the board for 16 years and retired in 2018. The current board has gotten "too deep in the weeds," which is causing projects such as fire station improvements and innovations to languish, he said.
"The purpose of the board is to provide broad oversight," he said. The board instead has haggled over smaller expenditures that hamper the district and the fire chief, rather than focusing on policy decisions.
"What disturbs me is not that we are on a wrong course, but we've stopped moving forward," Carpenter said. He noted the board has deferred rebuilding Station 4 and Station 1. If he is elected, he wants the board to continue to execute a long-term strategy to rebuild fire stations and upgrade and diversify its stations, equipment and technologies.
The challengers see a board that micromanages to the point of hindering important and even economically sound decisions. The strategy of purchasing property adjacent to the fire stations for future growth is one example, Carpenter said. The district typically fixes up the homes and rents them out until starting fire station expansions. But at Station 77, the board has let a home languish for two years without so much as a coat of paint and won't let the fire chief take care of it.
"We're basically a trash landlord," Carpenter said.
Chang Kiraly said she agreed with Ballard and Carpenter on that issue. "We cannot micromanage," she said.
In July, the board wanted staff to get permission to redo the front counter in the fire station, Chang Kiraly said. She also wanted the district-owned house on Chilco Street to not look as blighted, but the board "voted on not going forward with a coat of paint," she said by phone this week.
Silano took exception to the characterizations.
"We do not micromanage the chief. Our fire board president and our entire board work together. I do not understand what Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Ballard are referring to involving their criticism."
He touted the public safety credentials of the current fire board, saying that two board members are retired public safety managers with the combined experience of over 75 years. The board has a former CEO of a nonprofit, and two former financial administrators, calling it "a great combination to oversee a governmental organization," in an email.
Among the board's achievements are building a $45 million training facility and eliminating costly top division chief positions, Silano said.
But Chang Kiraly, Carpenter and Ballard said Chief Harold Schapelhouman is often hamstrung by the board. They said he has done a superb job, and replacing him will be difficult. To that end, a micromanaging board would be a liability in hiring and retaining a new chief. While that process could involve an internal search, it might also mean casting a wider net. Carpenter noted that in the past, hires from outside of the district didn't last long, but Schapelhouman, who has worked for the district for many years, brought stability.
Hiring a new chief is one reason why Chang Kiraly said she is running again.
"We need to have continuity and an institutional history" to choose the right chief, she said. She also supports involving public stakeholders, police departments and volunteer leaders in the process.
"The fire chief is the chief for the whole community and is the public face of the district and interacting with the public," she said.
The candidates said they want to work closely with the cities to make it easier to get permits to rebuild fire stations and to take part in the early stages of development proposals so traffic and other safety concerns will be addressed up front.
"The district does not have a seat at the table a lot of times," Ballard said.
Chang Kiraly agreed, saying neighboring cities should work with the fire district. "It comes down to: We have a say in building permits in terms of fire safety, but if cities really care about residents and the safety of residents, they should be working collaboratively with us."
Most concerning is the growing impact of traffic on emergency response times.
Silano said that traffic is a problem, and will remain a problem, but he disagreed that the district is being left out of development planning.
"All construction plans are reviewed by our staff. Any problem areas are addressed and are worked on by the chief and his staff. We are at the table with the communities we serve, working together."
Regarding emergency response times, Ballard is for continuing to develop plans to shift equipment strategically, as Schapelhouman has done, to locations where the response times are the longest and communities are most at risk, in order to mitigate traffic congestion. A truck with a ladder capable of reaching the tops of tall buildings is located at Station 2 in East Palo Alto, for example, where it can reach tall buildings quickly in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, he said.
As people come back to work when the economy reopens during the COVID-19 pandemic, Carpenter said people won't be carpooling or using public transportation, and that could further impact emergency response times. Finding solutions to congestion will take creative thinking. There might need to be smaller but more plentiful stations where responders won't have to travel far, he said.
On board spending and transparency, the candidates also agreed. The district is very well financed and is sound, said Ballard, who chairs the district's budget finance committee.
Silano said that the current fire board is very transparent. "We have a balanced budget, strong reserves, and we pay down our CALPERS (California Public Employees' Retirement System) debt yearly. We could presently pay off our CALPERS with our strong reserves," he said.
The new fire stations, 2 and 6, were paid for from tax dollars set aside for them, and the Station 4 construction project has funds already set aside, Silano said.
But there's one looming concern that could deeply affect the district's bottom line: the town of Atherton splitting from the fire district, which some on the Atherton City Council are considering.
Separating Atherton "would never be allowed. It's contrary to state law," Carpenter said.
Ballard said he had great concerns about it. "It would be a significant blow for the district," he said. Atherton's property taxes are significant and losing that revenue would impact the district's ability to provide its standard of services.
"We're one fire district, we're one community, so I'm not for any detachment. We provide service to the highest and lowest income communities in the county," Chang Kiraly said.
Silano said the consolidation of fire services and public safety services makes more sense.
"No detachment, period. It's like a house of cards. One town withdraws, the entire public safety response system is affected in San Mateo County. It will take years to get the system up and running in an effective and operational way. The other communities in the fire district and San Mateo County will be damaged by (Atherton's) move to detach," he said.
All four candidates agreed that the district institutionally is well-prepared for emergencies, except where volunteer programs are concerned. The Community Crisis Management program needs a lot of work, they said.
"It is too big and does not address the representation of all the volunteer groups within our fire district. It is not a fair group. Many times, it does not share the volunteers, training and equipment with all the other volunteer groups," Silano said. "We need to do more to support all volunteer groups equally."
In turn, some cities need to provide their volunteer groups with support, and all of the district's communities need to find a way to tap into "this great resource of volunteers within our community," he said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Sean Ballard is chairman of the finance committee. He was the resident representative. Virginia Chang Kiraly chairs the committee.