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[whitespace] Commissioners on the hot seat during meeting with residents

Calls to stop stalling and get county help

Saratoga--The gloves have definitely come off in the Saratoga Fire District, if they were ever on in the first place.

At two separate, highly vitriolic meetings last week, citizens and firefighters from both the Saratoga Fire District and the Santa Clara County Fire Department made accusations and asked pointed questions of the SFD administration, the three fire commissioners and the fire chief.

* At the Jan 23 meeting, attended by an estimated 60 people, resident Barry Ford asked the SFD commissioners how the citizens would go about recalling them.

* Various residents accused the commissioners of trying to hide something, "stalling" on requesting a bid for fire and medical services from the county department, and being evasive in general.

* Residents demanded to see the SFD's financial records, and one specifically asked commissioners to account for money from the SFD's alarm system, which is required for every home in the district and paid for by the homeowner. The resident also had questions about financial issues surrounding the purchase of a temporary station.

* SFD firefighter Berk Gilson charged the commission with trying to keep the public from attending one of the meetings by being vague about the time and location of the meeting.

* At the Jan. 25 meeting, resident Thomas Blaisdell said he believes commissioners unethically used public SFD funds to pay a political consultant during their campaign for Measure F, a bond measure for a new fire station last spring.

* Firefighter George McKenzie, a 40-year veteran of the SFD who lives in the district, announced that the SFD business manager refused to give him a copy of a recent SFD newsletter and response card concerning the new station, when he asked for one. The manager denies the accusation.

* SFD Capt. Bill Morrison professed that when he was named this year's firefighter of the year, SFD commissioners refused to present the award to him. Commissioners denied they meant anything by it and apologized for any misunderstanding.

At both meetings, the commissioners, who were put on the defensive by the citizens and firefighters, could not give answers as specific as what the citizens and firefighters seemed to want.

For well over a year, the SFD union firefighters have been trying to get the SFD administration to agree to a merger of the SFD with the county fire department. The union's position is that a merger would increase the safety of the residents in the district and the SFD firefighters. The firefighters say they work as hard as they can, but can't guarantee the best service for the citizens in the district.

And what started out as a dispute within the SFD has spilled into the community and involves citizens who appear to be increasingly distrustful of the commissioners.

Embattled commission chairman Bob Egan countered his critics at the Jan. 23 meeting, by saying he had received 20 to 30 calls and letters from individuals wanting to keep the fire district the way it is. He said the commission needs to listen to these other people in the district, as well.

"Where are they and why aren't they at this meeting and why aren't they speaking up?" asked resident Karen Walters on Jan. 23. "Where are they? If they had a real interest they would be here."

One citizen, David Dolloff, requested that the SFD administration make asking the county department for a bid for services their first priority. He said he and other citizens want the administration to put off any more planning for the new fire station and the hiring of any new personnel, until they make a decision on a merger.

The commissioners, Egan, Henry Clarke and Jay Geddes, have agreed to ask the county department for a bid for services. According to Egan, the commission is working on a request for proposals form, and is using one from Los Altos as a model. The RFP will be given to the county fire department, as well as other departments, to see what the departments could provide the SFD with, in terms of fire and medical services and at what cost, Egan said. But they do not have a target date for when the RFP will be complete, he said.

Commissioner Clarke said that if it turns out that the county department could run the district better for citizens and for less money, the SFD should contract with them for services.

"The Saratoga Fire District would continue here, what we would do is contract for service, whether it's central fire district or San Jose or whoever it may be, it could be anybody," Egan said. "When we get the RFP put together, we will ask for what those cost and what they can provide for service for our community, and we will do that."

Commissioner Geddes seemed to agree with Clarke and Egan, but said he was concerned that the county department would not be able to provide the same service as the SFD for the same cost.

"I'm a wife of a firefighter," said Gale Morrison, who is the wife of Capt. Bill Morrison. "I'm not looking at costs and I'm not looking at keeping the fire department the way it is. I'm concerned about my husband's safety ... I just want you guys to think about my husband's safety when you're thinking about costs."

The construction for the new fire station will be funded by a $6 million bond measure passed by residents in the district last April. "How would we make a motion not to build this new station and not to hire any more personnel until you've decided all this," resident Barry Ford asked the commissioners at a meeting Jan. 23. "It seems to me it's not working right; you should look into all this stuff and then decide what you're going to do."

The meeting on Jan. 23, was supposed to be a chance for the commission to receive comments from the public on the DMG report, a study of the level of fire and medical service in the district. The commission hired a private consultant to compile the report last February. The study was completed in November. It suggested that the district hire a deputy chief to help with the managerial workload and that the fire district seek outside contractors to help with services, such as providing ladder trucks and dispatch, among other things.

Many citizens showed up on Jan. 23, and the meeting, which started out orderly, degenerated into a free-for-all question and answer session, and hardly focused on the report at all.

"You've been working on getting a proposal from the county fire department for two months, at least, because that's when I first asked you to do it," said resident Thomas Blaisdell to the commission. "I don't think you guys are doing a bad job. I think, however, that a better job could be done at lower cost. And you three guys are not addressing that issue at all for some unknown reason ... If you would tell me why you're stalling ... to get a quote from the county fire department."

County firefighter Art Marshall noted the meeting was too little, too late, and that the people were never given the chance to comment before the report was finalized.

"Wouldn't the responsible thing be to do right now be... to cease and desist on this plan until they [commissioners] can talk with county fire?" Marshall asked. "Because I believe that's germane to this proposal, because you're going ahead with things that county fire already provides ... If you're not afraid of anything, then let the truth come out."

Marshall said the county fire chief could bring a bid for services back to the SFD commission within a week.

Egan responded that no matter what, the SFD still had to run a fire department and would proceed with the recommendations in the DMG report, as well as preparing an RFP for the county department and other jurisdictions. The commission did not decide to put anything on hold.

"This Saratoga Fire District has been here a long time, we have a wonderful record and I think that we can continue the very same record," said Commissioner Clarke at the meeting on Jan. 23. "We do have good firemen, efficient; they've been trained and been going to school; and I think this is why I think the Saratoga Fire District should stay the same as it is."

The second meeting on Jan. 25, was a regular monthly SFD commissioners meeting and during the oral communications section of the agenda, firefighters George McKenzie and Bill Morrison, and resident Thomas Blaisdell made their announcements.

In response to the accusation from Blaisdell about the political consultant for Measure F, commissioners countered by saying the consultant did campaign work pro bono and did nothing illegal nor unethical. Blaisdell accused the commission of paying her more up front, so she would agree to work through the election under the table.
Kara Chalmers

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