A bitterly divided Coastside Fire Protection District board of directors voted 3-2 after midnight Tuesday to accept new policies and salaries that are the first step toward dismantling current fire services in favor of building a brand new department. The move likely means the end of a four-year contract with CalFire.
The nearly six-hour meeting followed several similar gatherings that pitted a board majority of Doug Mackintosh, Mike Alifano and Gary Riddell against directors Gary Burke and Ginny McShane and CalFire Unit Chief John Ferreira. The majority poked holes in CalFire performance and claimed it could provide a higher level of service by managing district firefighters without help from the state.
Tuesday's move is only the first of what would be many board actions necessary to establish a stand-alone department. But it was the first concrete step toward doing so.
It was an emotional meeting. Mackintosh said he had heard from fire chiefs and district directors all over the state who advised him to ditch CalFire. He mentioned several problems he perceived with service, but intimated that in some ways it boiled down to his feeling that CalFire employees represented the state first and the Coastside second.
“I’m not doing this for any other reason than my belief that this change is best for my family,” he said.
Tuesday night’s divorce proceedings followed a marriage of convenience. CalFire bid for services and was awarded the contract in 2008 following a series of embarrassing and expensive lawsuits and increasingly poor morale in Coastside firehouses. Consultants, the civil grand jury and a handful of current and former fire chiefs have supported a CalFire contract.
But in December, the board majority hired consultants and charged them with analyzing whether it could run a fire department for less than $6.5 million a year. Those consultants said it could be done, though they acknowledged that such a service would be more expensive than CalFire’s service.
Directors had been criticized in the past for failing to specify problems with the CalFire contract. Alifano addressed the problems he saw with the current service in a lengthy full-page advertisement in the Review on July 27. Riddell and Mackintosh took their opportunities during the meeting.
“We were paying for services that we did not receive. I’m surprised that someone in the audience doesn’t have a problem with that,” said Riddell, who was referring to about 30 people in the audience, most of whom appeared to favor continuing the contract with the state agency.
Riddell complained that CalFire was slow to ramp up business inspections after taking over in 2008, that it hasn’t done enough fire prevention work and that it sometimes allows employees to work in the district who aren’t trained to emergency medical technician level.
Ferreira acknowledged problems with building inspections early in the contract but he bristled at many specifics of directors’ complaints. He seemed to take particular umbrage to perceived sleights in his employees.
“I think that is a disservice to every firefighter in CalFire. Every firefighter is a valuable employee,” he said. “Every time the board says we have not been responsive to the board it is doing a disservice to the public.”
Hanging over it all was the threat of a recall election. Proponents of a recall have a certified petition and have begun collecting the 2,714 signatures that would be necessary to get the recall of Mackintosh, Alifano and Riddell on an upcoming ballot.
“If you want to recall me, and that’s your choice, I accept it,” Mackintosh said. “I have a lot of other things I can do. But over 1,000 people elected me to this position. They voted out everyone who supported CalFire.”