Fire board accepts some, rejects other civil grand jury recommendations | August 29, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - August 29, 2018

Fire board accepts some, rejects other civil grand jury recommendations

by Barbara Wood

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District board last week agreed to reject eight findings and four recommended actions in a recent San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report critical of the district.

The board agreed to implement six other recommended actions from the report, including developing a strategic plan and updating a fire station location and land acquisition plan.

"We respectfully disagree" with some of the report's conclusions, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said, "and we agree with far more than we disagree with."

The board rejected more than 40 percent of the report's conclusions: four of 10 recommended actions and eight of 19 findings.

Fire board member Virginia Chang Kiraly was not at the meeting.

Defending ourselves

Perhaps the most heartfelt arguments against the grand jury report came when the fire board had moved to another item at its Aug. 21 meeting.

"It seems like we're defending ourselves instead of being allowed to celebrate the fact that we've done a good job," said Schapelhouman after cataloging how the district has hired 30 new employees, finished two new fire stations, bought multiple properties and put many new emergency response vehicles into service in the past four years.

"What most people would want to achieve in 30 years, we've just achieved in four," he said.

One of the report's main criticisms is that the district is doing all those things without a strategic plan to guide it, as much of the area it serves -- Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and adjoining county areas -- rapidly grows.

"Yes," Schapelhouman said, "we don't have a strategic plan, but we'll get there."

The district has until Oct. 10 to respond to the report. The district must explain any disagreement with the report's findings or failure to implement recommended actions. The 2018-19 grand jury will review the district's responses.

Schapelhouman said he will return to the board with a draft of the responses for review and approval on Sept. 18.

Impact fees

Several of the report's conclusions regard impact fees. One recommended action was that if the district needs to charge developers impact fees, it should provide the jurisdictions the district serves enough information to convince them to implement those fees by the end of 2019.

"This (recommendation) assumes we have impact fees because we need the money," Director Peter Carpenter said. "It's not true that we don't have the money. Impact fees are trying to get developers to pay their own way. I don't think we should use the taxpayers' money to pay for Facebook."

The board also disagreed with the recommendation to talk to officials in the jurisdictions it covers "to evaluate if impact fees on new development are necessary to adequately fund district operations in future years" by the end of this year.

The board and chief also disagreed with the finding that because the district does not have "a strategic plan, associated financial analysis, and land acquisition plan," it "was unable to persuade" the jurisdictions it covers "to adopt impact fees on new residential and commercial developments."

Carpenter instead blamed Atherton City Manager George Rodericks and Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre for derailing the fire district's attempts to impose impact fees. "These two individuals colluded to say we're not going to let the fire district do this," he said.

Impact fees must be imposed by the jurisdictions the fire district serves and passed back to the district. The district gave up negotiating to get Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and San Mateo County to adopt the fees after their officials started asking for more information about the district's need for the money.

Instead, the district has been negotiating directly with developers for payments, a practice the grand jury faulted.

Facebook 'donations'

Three other findings and a recommended action the district rejected have to do with Facebook payments to the district. The grand jury report says by soliciting or accepting donations from a business "subject to inspection and regulation" by district employees, the fire district "has created the possible appearance of favorable treatment or disparate application of rules or laws."

"This is a totally fallacious assumption," said Schapelhouman. "These are not donations."

The district's attorney, Tim Cremin, noted that "the word donation is not in the agreement" the district has with Facebook.

So far, Schapelhouman told The Almanac, Facebook has paid the district $689,250 in negotiated impact fees in addition to $746,000 in building permit, plan check and inspection fees. Facebook will pay additional fire district impact fees with future development.

Facebook is paying the full cost for a district fire inspector and half a plan checker for at least two years. In return, it is promised inspections within 24 hours of requests (even during off hours and days), a one-week turnaround of minor tenant improvement plans and a three-week turnaround of other plans.

The grand jury recommendation that the district should adopt a policy "not to pursue or accept donations from any private entity over which it exercises any official powers, such as building or plan inspection, or enforcement of any law or regulation" by the end of 2018 was also opposed by the board.

Schapelhouman told the board earlier in the meeting that the district is still negotiating with Facebook and may "embed" a fire district emergency planner on the Facebook campus .

Atherton home purchase

The board disagreed with two findings concerning a February 2017 report by consulting firm Citygate. One finding said Citygate recommended the district look for a new location for its Atherton fire station before making a final decision on moving the Atherton and North Fair Oaks stations.

Board members did not discuss the finding, but on page 13 the Citygate report says exactly what the grand jury report says: "Before making final site decisions on Stations #3 (Atherton) and #5 (North Fair Oaks), Citygate recommends the District try to find an acceptable parcel to move Station #3."

The district also rejected the finding that "notwithstanding the Citygate recommendation," the district purchased a home next door to the station "reportedly to eventually expand the station."

The district bought a home next to the Atherton station for $4.6 million a few months after approving the Citygate report.

Carpenter said the Citygate report assumed "that we would never be able to expand Station 3."

Accreditation

The final two findings and recommended action the district rejected concern accreditation. One says the district has not "progressed beyond the first phase of the accreditation process since 2011."

Fire board President Chuck Bernstein said he agreed with the statement, but no other board members spoke up.

"We have made progress, but we have not progressed beyond the first phase," he said.

The second finding says the district's "management and governance structure has not demonstrated the ability to balance ongoing emergency response responsibilities with administrative and planning functions" which has delayed "completing a strategic plan and achieving accreditation."

"I adamantly disagree with this statement," Carpenter said. "We do it every day, we do it every month."

The district is now working on an accreditation plan, but the board and chief disagreed with the recommendation that the district commit to completing the process by the end of 2019, saying it would take longer than that.

At is.gd/ALM_Jury see a longer version of this story, including a complete list of the grand jury recommendations the fire district agrees to comply with.

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