Two incumbents and two challengers are vying for two seats on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board this November.
Virginia Chang Kiraly and Rob Silano, who have both been on the board since November 2011, are running against Sean Ballard and former board member Peter Carpenter, who decided not to run for reelection in 2018 after serving a combined 15 years on the board.
The district covers Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and nearby unincorporated areas of San Mateo County, approximately 30 square miles that reaches into the Bay, according to its website. It responded to over 9,000 emergency incidents last year, with most of them being emergency medical incidents.
The Almanac interviewed the four candidates via questionnaire, asking them about issues ranging from the district's finances and replacing fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman upon his retirement (he told The Almanac on Wednesday that while his contract is up in June, he'll decide whether to retire in January) to their views on the town of Atherton examining the possibility of detaching from the fire district.
Sean Ballard, 43, is an investment professional who has lived in Menlo Park on and off for the last 20 years. He is a member of the fire district's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and has served as chairperson of its Community Crisis Management Advisory Board and as a resident representative on its Finance Committee since 2019. He sat on the district's Strategic Planning Committee as a resident representative in 2018. Ballard has a bachelor's degree in economics from Brigham Young University. His campaign website is carpenterballardforfireboard.com.
A 20-year Menlo Park resident who moved to the city as a young boy and returned in 2014, Sean Ballard says his "sense of obligation" as a citizen has grown over the years. After an unsuccessful run in 2018, he's vying for a seat on the fire board for the second time because he says he's well aware of the challenges and opportunities the district is facing. He underscored his experience as a former Strategic Planning Committee member and current Finance Committee member as relevant experience.
"I believe that I have an even-handed and steady management style and a low-ego personality that will serve the next board well in restoring the ability to make timely decisions, supporting the men and women of our professional staff to do their job without imposing unnecessary burdens, and bringing back the drive to work together to get things done and accomplish goals," he said.
Ballard is campaigning alongside fellow challenger Carpenter. Among Ballard's supporters are Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia, former Woodside Mayor Paul Goeld and Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team (ADAPT) president Tom Prussing.
His top three priorities as a board member would be fiscal accountability, responding to population growth and emergency preparedness, respectively. Since property taxes from within the district make up 90% of its revenue, he said, it "has an enormous responsibility to use those funds wisely." The board in June approved a 2020-21 fiscal year budget that projects $60 million in total revenues — including $54.7 million in property tax revenue, an increase of 4% over last fiscal year — and $57 million in expenditures, although that estimate was given before the board decided to leave out new positions and reclassifications.
Ballard is a member of Menlo Park CERT and chair of the advisory board overseeing the fire district's Community Crisis Management program, which works to establish and maintain a team of trained volunteers who can provide initial neighborhood response in the event of a major emergency. Emergency preparedness is important to him, he said, and he will work to encourage community members to get prepared and involved.
Ballard criticized the district's Emergency Preparedness Committee, saying it "does not have a handle on the community-based issues it faces." At the same time, he lauded board member Chuck Bernstein, a committee member, for proposing a board study session on the district's citizen volunteer program that was held last month.
"The vacuum from the Emergency Preparedness Committee in the early days of the pandemic left citizen volunteers adrift," Ballard said. "We volunteers then proceeded to organize, seek assistance from the professional staff of the fire district, and take initiative without guidance from the committee."
He believes the most significant issue the board will be facing is the search for a new fire chief, adding that he thinks the current board — which he called dysfunctional — would struggle to accomplish the task.
"It would be a nearly insurmountable challenge to secure the most talented candidate for the role when that candidate will surely understand what likely awaits them and decides to pass," he said.
Ballard added that he believes mutual respect is missing from the current board, and that it has micromanaged "in a way that impedes the smooth functioning of the district."
"The fire board simply should not be involved in day-to-day operations of the district in a way that interferes with our professional staff," he said.
As a member of the Finance Committee, Ballard says he is already involved in oversight of the district's budget.
"As a board member, I can augment this fiscal stewardship with the ability to provide governance over complementary items, such as standards of cover studies and timeliness of responses to emergencies, to ensure careful planning and budgeting in an ever-changing landscape," he said.
Asked about the town of Atherton's decision to further research the idea of detaching from the fire district and contracting out for emergency services — a process that has been put on hold due to the pandemic and was prompted by a fiscal services review that found property tax revenue from Atherton is millions of dollars more than it costs the fire district to provide the town services — Ballard said separation would be a "tremendous blow" and that joint discussions between the board and Atherton City Council need to get back on track.
"I believe that a fair outcome, that both sides consider to be amenable, will require each side give a little in deference to the other," he said.
Menlo Park resident Peter Carpenter, 80, is a corporate officer/director and former fire board member who has lived in the district for 39 years. In addition to his combined 15 years on the fire board, he has extensive experience in emergency preparedness from working with multiple local CERT groups. He has served on numerous committees and as director of various organizations, including stints on Stanford Hospital's Ethics Committee and with Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters (InSTEDD). He served in the Air Force, working as a military aide at the White House and as a test parachutist for the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, among other roles during his service. He has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. His campaign website is carpenterballardforfireboard.com.
As a former fire board member who is heavily involved in local emergency preparedness efforts, Peter Carpenter represents a familiar face for voters despite being a challenger this time around. He said he believes he's the best candidate based on his corporate leadership experience, years of public service and knowledge of the fire district.
Carpenter has been endorsed by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, former state Senator and Congressman Tom Campbell, and former Woodside Mayor Goeld, among others.
If elected, his top three priorities would be ensuring that the district "continues to provide the same level of superior service to all of its residents," recruitment of a new fire chief and timely decision-making by the board.
The first two priorities are also among the greatest challenges facing the district, Carpenter said, along with aggressive innovation in order to respond to growth and changes in the community.
In searching for a new fire chief, the district and board should prioritize leadership, integrity and a distinguished career of firefighting experience, Carpenter said. Asked about the district's spending in recent years, he said it needs to "significantly increase its investments in innovation and in citizen-level disaster preparedness."
Carpenter spoke strongly against the concept of Atherton detaching from the fire district, calling it "a cancer that must be eliminated."
"I am working hard to elect Atherton City Council members who will abandon this effort," he said. "The best way to serve our residents would be a county-wide consolidation of fire agencies with the added responsibility for EMS services ... such a consolidation would provide better services at a lower cost per capita than the current fragmented non-system."
He believes the district should enter into agreements with Atherton, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to become the lead agency in the event of a disaster, to operate a combined emergency operations center and to train and equip a significant number of volunteers.
Asked what the current board could be doing better, he said, "Focusing on broad policy issues and reinstating the chief as the district's CEO rather than engaging in micromanagement and interpersonal squabbles."
Virginia Chang Kiraly
Virginia Chang Kiraly, 56, has served on the fire board since 2011 and has lived in unincorporated West Menlo Park for over 25 years. She is a member the San Mateo County Harbor District Commission since 2015 and served on a number of its committees, and currently serves on the fire district's Finance and Human Relations committees. Chang Kiraly spent seven years as a California Commission for Economic Development member, as an appointee of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. She is a fire district CERT member and a licensed ham radio operator. Her professional background is in investing and trading, having worked for the Nasdaq Stock Market and PaineWebber, among other companies. She has a bachelor's degree in government from University of Texas at Austin and a master of public administration from the University of Southern California. Her campaign website is virginiachangkiraly.com.
West Menlo Park resident and incumbent Virginia Chang Kiraly has the rare distinction of running for reelection to two different positions within the county: As she seeks her third term on the fire board, she is also running for reelection to the harbor district's board against former Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith.
Chang Kiraly said that she is the best candidate to "rebuild bridges" with Atherton and Menlo Park, strengthen the district's Community Emergency Response Team programs and maintain its healthy finances. She added that she has experience serving on the fire board during tumultuous times — including when Schapelhouman suffered paralyzing injuries from a fall at his home in 2013 — that would serve the district well moving forward given the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing frequency of disastrous wildfires in the state. She has served as board president twice and said she considers her management of the process for a newly negotiated contract with the district's two bargaining units in 2015 an accomplishment she is proud of.
Chang Kiraly has been endorsed by a number of well-known current and former politicians, including state Sen. Jerry Hill, former state Assemblymember Rich Gordon and current Assemblymember Marc Berman.
"My professional financial background, extensive community involvement, open communication, and track record of success over the last nine years of service on the fire board allow me to bring my relevant experience to help repair relationships with our community volunteers and the jurisdictions that the fire district serves and continue providing stable leadership on the fire board," she said.
Her top priorities if reelected would be to continue ensuring the district's budget is healthy by funding capital improvement projects and paying down unfunded pension liabilities; improving the district's relationship with local jurisdictions and its volunteers; and ensuring a smooth transition to the new fire chief when Schapelhouman retires.
The greatest challenges facing the district, Chang Kiraly said, are repairing the "broken relationships" between the district, board and jurisdictions they serve and restructuring the CERT program "so that our incredible volunteers are reengaged to help their families and neighbors during a disaster, such as an earthquake or fire." She believes conflicts between the district and the areas it serves can be addressed through regular joint meetings and respectful dialogue.
Respect on the fire board is lacking at times, Chang Kiraly said, and inappropriate behavior — what she referred to as misogynistic and chauvinistic behavior that she says she's experienced from a few fellow board members — does not reflect the values of the fire district. Chang Kiraly has been the only woman on the board for the last nine years and is the second female member since the district's formation in 1915.
"Our fire district cannot afford to be divisive, with bullying fire board members, when all of us must face the challenges of COVID-19 and the dangers of wildfires right here in our community, such as the Triangle encampments in the eastern area of Menlo Park that experienced 11 incident responses in July," she said.
Chang Kiraly believes a new fire chief would need to be fiscally responsible, collaborative and ethical. Replacing Schapelhouman will be difficult, and if reelected Chang Kiraly said she would bring continuity and institutional history to the selection process.
She said the fire district has healthy financial management and said that has allowed the organization to plan for the future by purchasing properties adjacent to fire stations for the construction of new stations. She added, however, that the board must be mindful of employee compensation expenses and unfunded future pension liabilities. She is a proponent of continuing to pay down unfunded employee pension liabilities and said rethinking how non-sworn employees should be compensated is something that will have to be discussed.
On the town of Atherton weighing whether to detach from the fire district, Chang Kiraly said she is against any jurisdiction detaching from the district.
"I believe that the financial impact would be adverse for the entire fire district if Atherton detached. ... the district's excellent emergency-response service would have to be reduced, and this adverse impact would harm low-income and at-risk communities, which also happen to be fast-growing areas in the Bay Area," she said.
Chang Kiraly believes the district is very prepared when it comes to responding to a major emergency, but added that it could strengthen its group of neighborhood CERT volunteers by rethinking how they can be trained and deployed in a meaningful way when needed.
The board could be better at providing broad oversight rather than micromanaging operations, which she said the board has done over the last couple of years, and with being respectful toward fellow directors. Chang Kiraly and challenger Carpenter, who sat on the board together for seven years, repeatedly clashed in public during their overlapping tenures, and she said she would not want to see him return.
"I fear that electing former board members who have a history of antagonism toward the jurisdictions that the fire district serves may endanger the relationships that are already fragile but have a chance to be rebuilt," Chang Kiraly said.
Rob Silano, 68, has lived in Menlo Park for 32 years and has been a fire board director since 2011. He currently sits on the district's Emergency Preparedness Committee and has over 40 years of public safety experience in federal, state and local governmental agencies ranging from working as a senior manager and special agent for the Department of Justice to working as an intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security. He has volunteered with a number of organizations, including FBI National Academy Associates, the Silicon Valley Homeland Security Coordination Group and Peninsula Habitat for Humanity. He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice administration and a master's degree in education administration from Florida International University, as well as law enforcement and public safety certifications. His campaign website is robsilano.com.
As an incumbent with over 40 years of public safety experience, Rob Silano says he wants to return to the board to help ensure the district provides the best possible service in a fiscally responsible manner. He touts several accomplishments during his nine-year tenure, including being apart of successful labor contract negotiations with all employee labor groups and the development of the district's strategic plan for 2020 through 2025.
He has been endorsed by a list of emergency response officials and elected officials that includes Don Long, the former deputy fire chief for Menlo Fire, Eshoo and DeGolia.
Silano's top three priorities if reelected would be to "maintain the highest level of fire and emergency services to communities served by the district;" continue to support prudent fiscal management oversight policies with balanced budgets and strong reserves; and keep pace with current trends in public safety equipment, facility upgrades and additional personnel.
The greatest challenges facing the district, he said, are traffic congestion and global warming.
"Traffic congestion is a problem and continues to be a problem," he said. "It is critical to retain our excellent response times. The fire district needs to participate more with the building-zoning departments of each city and town within our district.
"Global warming is a problem too, since many coastal areas fall within the fire district and flooding has been a concern for our East Palo Alto residents," Silano added.
Silano commended Schapelhouman's work as fire chief and said he would want to initiate a nationwide search for his replacement that would also involve local jurisdictions, the county and local businesses.
He says the current fire board is "very transparent" about its finances and works within its budget, adding that the newest fire stations were paid for by set-aside tax dollars and the district could currently pay off its California Public Employees' Retirement System (CALPERS) debt with its reserves.
Silano called the accusations of board micromanagement by the other candidates false, saying it is not micromanagement but rather "appropriate fire board oversight." He said the board has rejected multiple project proposals because they were deemed too costly and wouldn't benefit all communities served by the district.
"We as a board would not be good stewards of our fire district expenditures if we did not rightfully request further information or an explanation or documentation when considered necessary," he said. "Close oversight by the board of taxpayers' money is effective fiscal management and should not be criticized but lauded."
Asked about Atherton weighing a split from the district, he said separation "could have dire consequences."
"It's like a house of cards," he said. "One town withdraws, the entire public safety response system is affected in San Mateo County. ... The other communities in the fire district will be damaged by Atherton's move to detach."
Silano added that he has spoken to several Atherton council members on the subject and said he is ready to meet and "see what is a reasonable solution," acknowledging that the town's property taxes wouldn't be lowered if they detached.
The district is prepared for a major emergency, he said, but the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services should better coordinate and publicize its SMC Alert system as a recent San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report recommended. Menlo Fire's Community Crisis Management program is also too big, and it does not always 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," he said.
The current board should create a strategic plan involving all the communities the district serves, Silano said, and schedule more working groups and joint meetings with them.