Almanac

News - October 23, 2013

Voter Guide: Big fire board battle over union issues

A slate of three candidates oppose two others who are backed by the firefighters' union. Menlo Park Fire Protection District election: Three vs. two for three open seatsFirefighters union role is the election is a key issue.

by Sandy Brundage

The line is clearly drawn in the upcoming Menlo Park Fire Protection District board elections, with three seats at stake. Chuck Bernstein, Peter Carpenter and Rex Ianson are running as a slate to defeat the candidates backed by the financial and manpower resources of the firefighters union: Carolyn Clarke and Jack Nelson.

The union issue is particularly relevant at a time when the district and firefighters have been trying to come to agreement on a contract after a years-long impasse, primarily over salary increases.

Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Ianson have all agreed to not accept support of any kind from the unions in this year's election.

The Almanac asked all the candidates for copies of their responses to the questionnaire provided by the San Mateo County Labor Council for use in deciding whether to endorse someone. Both Mr. Nelson and Ms. Clarke refused to disclose their answers on the grounds that the labor council asked candidates not to.

Mr. Bernstein provided his answers to the public; Mr. Ianson and Mr. Carpenter chose to not fill out the questionnaire.

Aside from the question of union endorsement, the candidates have broad goals in common. All cited fiscal stability, maintaining a high level of service, and reaching an agreement with the firefighters over their contract as their top priorities. With the exception of Ms. Clarke, the candidates have extensive experience, whether professional or volunteer, in emergency preparedness.

The district covers Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated areas.

Chuck Bernstein

"The idea of really getting people together to solve our own problems motivates me," Mr. Bernstein said.

Even before he decided to run for the Menlo Park City Council, he said, he was interested in campaigning for the fire district board. He has attended "numerous meetings" to learn how the district works.

His choice of extracurricular activities demonstrates a long-standing interest in disaster preparedness: joining the Willows community emergency response training team, teaching emergency aid for Boy Scout troops, volunteering as treasurer for the Ring the Bell Fund, a nonprofit launched earlier this year to help schools install new fire alarms systems that would connect directly to fire stations, and serving on a community emergency response training advisory group.

"We've been talking about how to integrate a volunteer corps with the command structure," he said. With only about 25 firefighters on duty at one time, he sees a need to expand CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) until thousands of volunteers are trained.

He's hoping his financial background will also be an asset to the fire district.

Peter Carpenter

"Voters have a choice, and I think it's a very clear choice," Mr. Carpenter said, noting that he entered the race at the last minute to prevent a board majority from being in the hands of union-backed members.

"I don't think it's in the public interest to have people (on the board) who are beholden."

But there are other issues he wants to work on as well. Hammering out mutual aid agreements to make sure each community bears its share of maintaining emergency response resources, for example. As some cities, such as Redwood City, choose to close fire stations, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District finds itself responding to emergencies in other jurisdictions on a daily basis, according to Mr. Carpenter.

He also wants to take a look at how to allocate resources now that approximately 80 percent of calls relate to medical rather than fire emergencies. Medics on motorcycles, like those deployed in Florida, may be a good option.

Fire prevention is another key issue. "If there's a fire, it means that somewhere along the way prevention didn't work," he said. "We still can't convince Menlo Park to be forward thinking on (installing) sprinklers."

The downtown area of Menlo Park lacks an adequate water supply for fighting fires, he said, and a recent renovation of the Santa Cruz Avenue irrigation system looked promising until he realized the city was simply improving how it waters the landscaping.

Carolyn Clarke

"I just have this big heart and vision," Ms. Clarke said. As a newcomer to fire district politics, she said she offers honesty and a fresh perspective, along with representation for Belle Haven, a community "which hasn't had much of a voice until lately."

While campaigning for the Menlo Park City Council, she said, a union official as well as current fire board director Rob Silano suggested that if she didn't win, she should run for the fire board.

Will accepting the union's assistance create a conflict of interest should she be elected to the fire board? "I don't believe in being bought for a dollar. You have to do what is right. You have to strive for it," she said.

Another aspect of Ms. Clarke's campaign that has stirred controversy is whether campaign literature implies that she is a certified public accountant by citing her membership in the California Society of CPAs. Although she is not a CPA, you don't have to be one to belong to the society.

She'd like to work on community outreach if elected to "start a movement of preparedness" and also look at pension planning. "CalPERS (the state's retirement system) is a bit of a culprit why don't we have options?"

Rex Ianson

Incumbent Rex Ianson, with 36 years as a firefighter and union member, said he learned after accepting union endorsement during his first run for office that it came with the expectation that his votes on the fire board would support the union. So this time he declined.

"Accepting it the first time was a mistake," he said. "Nothing is free."

Ongoing issues for the district to address include funding new equipment to make sure firefighters have enough tools to cover all the upcoming multi-story developments in Menlo Park and ensuring that communities on both sides of U.S. 101 can be reached in a timely manner during emergencies, even if traffic comes to a standstill. The district has made strides in that direction, he said, putting in knockdown walls, which allow fire trucks to go around a collapsed overpass, for example.

As with Mr. Carpenter, he also wants to take a look at how to allocate resources now that the vast majority of calls relate to medical emergencies. He pointed out some drawbacks to the "medics on motorcycles" approach. "You get there quicker, but it's only two personnel. At certain times of day or of the year, it may not be a bad idea." For events such as Stanford football games, the medics could be pre-positioned at strategic spots, he said.

Jack Nelson

"It's not illegal," Mr. Nelson responded when asked whether he saw a conflict of interest between accepting the union's help during a campaign and then voting on union contracts as a board member. "Why can't they have a seat at the table?"

The community should re-elect him because of his experience, he said, noting his service on the fire district's human resources committee and the California Special Districts Association as well as his certification as a Federal Emergency Management Agency trainer. He also joined the new Menlo Park citizens police advisory group.

"I have worked very hard to obtain and maintain the respect of labor, and I still have it," Mr. Nelson said. "I believe in a level playing field."

During his first term on the board, Mr. Nelson said, the district raised its Insurance Services Offices rating to a Class 2 (with Class 1 being the best). The ISO rating reflects the performance of a jurisdiction's fire-fighting resources and has some impact on local fire insurance rates.

The fire district has also remained about $8 million under its Gann spending limit of $40 million a year. A state law known as the "Gann limit" effectively caps appropriations of tax revenue for operational expenditures.

Candidate bios

Chuck Bernstein, 68, CEO, Early Learning Institute. In addition to participating in community emergency response training and co-founding the Willows Citizen Patrol, Mr. Bernstein has volunteered with Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform, the state coalition on special education, and various city advisory groups on the budget and childcare. Education: B.A., Princeton; Ph.D. in languages and linguistics, and MBA, Stanford University.

Peter Carpenter, 73, director, Mission and Values Institute. Mr. Carpenter is a familiar face at fire district meetings, having served about nine years previously on the board. A former smokejumper, he currently volunteers on the boards of numerous nonprofits and contributes to discussions of public policy and government transparency. Education: MBA, University of Chicago; A.B., chemistry, Harvard.

Carolyn Clarke, 58, owner, TaxTime Solutions. Ms. Clarke has volunteered on Menlo Park's housing commission as well as the housing element update steering committee, the county Measure A oversight committee, and with Habitat for Humanity. Education: B.S., business administration/accounting, San Francisco State University.

Rex Ianson, 72, retired firefighter. An incumbent, Mr. Ianson has served on the fire board for eight years. He retired after 36 years as a firefighter and continues to teach classes in urban search and rescue as well as fire training. Education: A.A., fire science, College of San Mateo.

Jack Nelson, 68. Occupation: logistics and corporate safety. An incumbent, Mr. Nelson was first elected to the fire board in 2009. He has taught community emergency response training, serves on the new Menlo Park police advisory group and as fire district liaison to the city of Menlo Park. Education: B.S., business/finance, University of Missouri-Columbia; A.A., fire science, St. Louis Community College.

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