Almanac

News - October 26, 2011

Election 2011: Fire board candidates share views at forum

by Sandy Brundage

The clear winner of the night may have been the World Series, given the sparse crowd of about 20 people attending the forum for the five candidates running for two open seats on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board.

Hosted by the League of Women Voters on Thursday, Oct. 20, the five fielded seven questions that covered pensions, priorities, and problems — or as incumbent Bart Spencer and fellow candidate, business executive Scott Barnum, put it — challenges. The district serves Atherton and East Palo Alto, nearby unincorporated areas, as well as Menlo Park.

While East Palo Alto resident Steve Kennedy focused on the role of the board in evaluating the fire chief's performance, the other contenders concentrated on finances and communication. Defined contributions instead of defined benefits represented a possible new direction for the district's pension system, they suggested.

Virginia Chang Kiraly, who chaired a civil grand jury that produced a report on pensions that inspired the reform initiative Measure L, noted that her goal was to see employees contribute more and share the increased future pension costs, but that there were many choices to put on the table.

National security analyst Rob Silano brought up other facets to consider, such as implementing a mandatory retirement age.

And about those challenges — in addition to financial sustainability, Ms. Chang Kiraly listed community outreach, while Mr. Barnum raised the issue of how to assign resources given that the majority of service calls were medical rather than fire-related.

For that first year in office, Mr. Silano said he wants to bring the fire district into the 21st century by increasing its technological assets, as well as getting pension costs under control.

Mr. Spencer said he would continue to focus on operational efficiency; Mr. Barnum felt his extensive financial background would lend itself to financial planning, as did Ms. Chang Kiraly, who said getting a contract approved for the firefighters was a huge priority.

Asked what is the No. 1 thing he'd work on during a first year in office, Mr. Kennedy promised to not usurp the power of the fire chief and to develop some political capital.

When asked whether they understood and supported the 10-point labor negotiation policy approved by the fire board last year, Mr. Spencer declared it "probably an unfair question since I was on the board when it was voted on."

Mr. Silano said he thought the negotiating should be left to professionals and pointed to the board's direct involvement in negotiating with the firefighters' union as a contributing factor to the current contract impasse. The other candidates, with the exception of Mr. Kennedy, who wanted to review the 10 points before offering an opinion, said they thought the policy was sound.

Is morale in the district low? All five agreed that it could be better. But solutions proved elusive. "It's just not a piece of cake, snap your fingers answer," said Mr. Barnum. The others proposed improving communication at all levels in the hopes of getting the firefighters back to the negotiating table.

The real stumper seemed to be a question about how much taxpayers pay — both in dollars and in the percent of the district's budget — for training and upkeep for teams to deploy on search-and-rescue missions. While no candidate had the numbers, the consensus was that the missions provided invaluable training.

Go to tinyurl.com/MPFPD-2011 to view the League of Women Voters information on the election and video of the forum, which the League plans to post soon.

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