Almanac

Cover Story - October 12, 2011

Voter Guide: Five seek to take on Menlo Park fire district challenges

by Sandy Brundage

Mix five candidates with two seats up for grabs on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors, and the result is a campaign season with its fair share of quirky moments mingled with statements about pension reform that sound like everyone's on the same page.

As the November election gets closer, voters will have to choose between the old and the new, with one incumbent sharing the campaign trail with four relatively new, but not unfamiliar, candidates.

The district includes Atherton, East Palo Alto and unincorporated areas, as well as Menlo Park.

Scott Barnum

"Strategic and financial acumen," Scott Barnum said when asked to tell people in a few words why they should vote for him.

Mr. Barnum stepped into the election melee carrying the credentials of a dedicated Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team member for the past seven years and ham radio operator. (If cell phone service dies following an earthquake, his voice might be one of the few people can tune into for updates.) Bolstering those qualifications is his experience as a businessman who runs his own company and has guided public and private organizations through "challenging operating conditions."

The fire district has its share of problems, including a long-lasting contract impasse with the unionized firefighters. Asked how he would solve it, Mr. Barnum replied, "It would be presumptuous to say I have the answer. My take is that there's common ground" and that the market should dictate compensation. He pointed out that having labor at odds with management, despite the district's "great infrastructure and capabilities" is counterproductive.

Other challenges he'd like to tackle: improving collaboration between the district and the city; engaging the community in disaster preparedness; and figuring out what's "nice to do" versus "need to do" on the district's plans for the future. A collective bargaining agreement, continued strategic financial planning, those are needs, in Mr. Barnum's view. He'd also like to take a look at the logistics of response since more than 70 percent of calls are for medical emergencies that don't require a fully equipped ladder truck.

Outsourcing or consolidation, particularly for "back office" functions, is another area to explore. "The district needs to increase efficiency and save costs somehow," he said. "But it's not a piece of cake thing."

Steve Kennedy

"I am a technocrat," Steve Kennedy offered as a four-word summary of his qualifications. He has the unique advantage of infamous name recognition. The East Palo Alto resident won his first term in 1999 by simply showing up at the county elections office. One of only two candidates for two seats that year, he was appointed.

The final two years of Mr. Kennedy's four-year term were marred by confrontations with fellow board members and fire district staff, leading to three censures and the forced surrender of his badge. Asked repeatedly to resign, he instead chose to run for re-election, leaving fellow board members and the firefighters union to lead a successful sortie to defeat his campaign.

Has anything changed? During an endorsement interview with the Almanac, Mr. Kennedy flashed a photo of a man naked from the waist down, saying it was a picture of the apartment manager who'd reported the candidate's yard as a fire hazard. It's safe to say Mr. Kennedy still marches to the beat of his own drummer.

Why does he want to return to the fire board? "My number one goal is to restore labor-management harmony," he said. "I think if we can restore a sense of honor and decency to labor relations, we'd have fewer guys claiming disability."

Part of that restoration entails finding the money to give the firefighters raises. "My job is to pay them something approximating the best salaries in San Mateo County. Right now we're in the middle of the pack."

To cut costs, the candidate advocated smaller responses to medical calls "send two guys in an SUV stocked with medical supplies" and changing the staffing model instead of paying overtime. He'd also like to see the district turn to hybrid vehicles and solar panels.

Mr. Kennedy dreams big. "I want to see my name on a well-designed Station 2 in East Palo Alto. I want to see my name on a brass plaque."

Virginia Chang Kiraly

"I believe in keeping our communities and families safe" was Virginia Chang Kiraly's response when asked why she deserves a vote.

For the past 11 years, she's wanted to serve on the fire board, and nurtured that ambition through activities such as leading fire safety projects for the Junior League, volunteering with the Red Cross, and serving as foreman for a civil grand jury inquiry into pension reform and connection of public school fire alarms with local fire stations. The latter is something she'd like to pursue as a board member while some schools are now fully connected, she said, others like Ravenswood still aren't. "And that doesn't even address the portable (classrooms)."

Her professional experience includes 15 years of corporate financial planning. That background has helped convince her that a two-tier pension structure remains a necessity for the fire district, with a switch to defined contributions instead of defined benefits. "I think it's going to take baby steps to really change this thing," she said. Consolidation or outsourcing of administrative and other duties is worth considering, but given the complexity of mutual aid agreements "it has to be done in a thoughtful way."

As for resolving the impasse with the firefighters union, Ms. Chang Kiraly noted, "There must be more open communication on both sides." That also goes for the district's relationship with the City Council, she said.

Rob Silano

"More for less, and safely," Rob Silano said. His campaign materials sling a lot of acronyms DEA, FBI, DHS that testify to years of professional experience dealing with threat analysis and public safety. But he's also dealt with federal budgets, and said those skills would benefit the fire district, particularly when it comes to chasing down grants.

Being at loggerheads has generated a lot of ill will between the district and its firefighters, Mr. Silano observed, and he thinks the biggest mistake was to have two board members actually negotiate with union representatives, instead of using professional arbitration right from the start. "But the thing I'm concerned about is how much it's cost us as taxpayers." He estimated that the $2 million spent so far could have bought three fire trucks, paid overtime, or hired more staff.

Costs remains a theme during his interview. A two-tier system for new hires, yes, but also looking at using a three- to five-year salary average to calculate pensions instead of a single year; changing the maximum age for retirement; and creating a shared fund to close any gap between costs and returns from CalPERS, the state's retirement fund.

Consolidation with the right partner could be a step in the right direction, but "it's a monumental task. It can't happen overnight."

Citing four-minute response times and the fire chief as examples, he thought the current board is doing an overall excellent job. But some areas could stand improvement, according to Mr. Silano. The district needs upgraded stations and its own hazmat response team, he said, and it needs to address radio communication dead spots like those in Sharon Heights. He'd also like to add Internet access to the fire engines. "Our district is behind the technology curve. They're catching up, but I think things are moving too slowly."

Bart Spencer

"I believe I'm still making a contribution to the board," Bart Spencer said. The only incumbent up for re-election, he's seen 12 years on the board already, which makes him the perfect candidate to ask about resolving the union impasse.

"It boils down to economics. People want fair compensation; the board needs to look at the bigger picture," he commented. "It's really about trying to find that one connection (between both sides). Finger-pointing doesn't really get you anywhere."

The former firefighter suggested questions the board needs to ask going forward: What is a reasonable salary? What can we afford? What is a firefighter worth? "What is a person who makes $100,000 and what does that job look like?" he said.

Solutions to stemming growing costs may lie outside the box, in consolidating administrative services with a well-matched partner area, perhaps San Mateo or Palo Alto. "How can we better align with other agencies?" Mr. Spencer asked.

As other candidates did, he wanted to look at how to more efficiently use the district's resources in an environment where medical calls outnumber fire alarms, and where to assign different equipment configurations to account for increased development within the district's boundaries. Plans for renovating fire stations should proceed, but in light of flattening property tax revenues, a phased approach makes sense. "We need to be strategic and smarter," he said.

FORUM: The League of Women Voters will host a forum for the candidates running for the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers in the Civic Center at 701 Laurel Street in Menlo Park.

CANDIDATE BIOS

Scott Barnum

Profession: Business executive

Education: M.B.A. Columbia University; BBA Pacific Lutheran University

Civic service: Neighborhood emergency coordinator; Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team member; neighborhood association board treasurer; Menlo-Atherton Little League board member and coach

Steve Kennedy

Profession: Low-voltage electrician

Education: Certificates, fire alarm and life safety. Junior college credits in telecom.

Civic service Menlo Park Fire Protection District board member (1999-2003); fire safety video project

Virginia Chang Kiraly

Profession: Community volunteer and Silicon Valley Red Cross board member

Education: B.A. University of Texas

Civic service: California Commission for Economic Development; San Mateo County civil grand jury foreperson; San Mateo County Community College District Measure G Parcel Tax Oversight Committee member

Rob Silano

Profession: National security analyst, threat intelligence

Education: M.S.; B.S., Florida International University

Civic service: Industrial Emergency Council Board of Directors; Community Grants Associates Board of Directors; Menlo Park Parks and Recreation Commission; AYSO Soccer Board of Directors

Bart Spencer

Profession: Public safety/emergency services consultant

Education: M.A., Santa Clara; B.A. Rhodes College

Civic Service: Incumbent; on fire board since 1999. Paramedic/firefighter. San Mateo County Emergency Medical Services Joint Powers Authority board member.

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