Almanac

News - November 16, 2011

Election 2011: Fire board sees new faces; incumbent voted out

by Sandy Brundage

As mail-in ballots were counted, a razor-thin margin separated the two top vote-getters in the election for two open seats on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors. The district includes Atherton, East Palo Alto and unincorporated areas, as well as Menlo Park.

Voter turnout was low this year. According to the county, 6,959 ballots were cast, out of 36,625 eligible voters, meaning only 19 percent of those who could exercised their right to vote in the fire district election.

Unofficial results show community activist Virginia Chang Kiraly with 2,862 votes and national security expert Rob Silano with 2,837 votes. Both candidates received union endorsements despite supporting pension reform, as well as backing from local elected officials.

Vote totals for the other candidates as of the Nov. 10 update showed Bart Spencer with 2,639; Scott Barnum, 1,578; and Steven P. Kennedy, 901. The remaining ballots are unlikely to change the outcome; the final count is due at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, according to the San Mateo County Elections Office.

Ms. Kiraly hesitated to say she'd won with votes still waiting to be counted. In a campaign where most candidates emphasized financial sustainability and pension reform, she attributed the strong showing to her community activism, which highlighted the issue of school fire alarms not being connected to the fire district.

"I think that really resonated with everybody," she said. "I'm hoping to bring more visibility to the issue, particularly with portable classrooms."

Another factor may have been her gender — Ms. Kiraly will be only the second woman to serve on the board, something she said people mentioned as a reason to vote for her.

Her fellow candidate-elect wasted no time in proclaiming victory. "Of course I'm very pleased that voters have selected me," Mr. Silano said. "I congratulate Virginia Kiraly and look forward to tackling the district's problems in a constructive fashion."

Incumbent Bart Spencer will lose the seat he's held for 12 years on the board if the remaining ballots don't change the outcome. "Until the votes are counted, I'm proud of being able to give the community 12 years of service. I really have an affinity for the fire service and what they do, and I'm pleased to be able to contribute," he said.

He commented that campaign spending was a factor. "It comes down to how much money you want to spend on a local election, what one feels is an appropriate amount to spend versus the amount of return. When you're spending more than $40,000 or $50,000 on a local election, is that an appropriate amount? It's just a question each individual person has to ask."

Mr. Spencer estimated he spent between $6,000 and $7,000 on his campaign. Ms. Kiraly said she'd spent roughly $12,000.

Scott Barnum, a businessman and disaster-preparedness volunteer, had 1,578 votes as of the latest count on Nov. 10. "My platform was the independent and frugal platform, and a personal predilection, rightly or wrongly, for trying to do it the old-fashioned way where you don't have to spend your way to victory," Mr. Barnum said.

He congratulated the winners and said the district was fortunate to have a variety of candidates, compared to uncontested races.

Steve Kennedy, who had a higher profile but a checkered history during a previous term on the board, got 901 votes (8.3 percent). "I finished dead last in a field of five candidates. There's no way to sugar coat that news," he wrote in an email to the Almanac. "I knew that I'd have no chance to win when I didn't get the endorsement of labor. But I badly overestimated the willingness of my union brothers to cross a picket line and work for me on the side. I didn't get the endorsement of labor because I was perceived as being anti-semitic.

Measure F, which allows the fire district to spend up to $40 million over four years in tax revenues it already collects, was approved by 76.7 percent of the voters, 4,986 to 1,511. The measure does not rack up new taxes or costs, but was necessary due to a state law known as the "Gann limit" that effectively caps appropriations for operational expenditures. The current cap of $40 million was approved in 2007, but set to expire at the end of this year.

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