By Miriam Raftery
November 12, 2016 (San Diego’s East County) – In July, San Miguel’s Fire Board voted by a slim one-vote margin to cancel its contract with CAL FIRE a year early and go back to being a free-standing district, but kept the action on hold pending outcome of the election.
Now, three of the four winning candidates support continuing the deal with CAL FIRE, while only one wants to give CAL FIRE the boot. Yet ironically, the candidate with the most votes, retired Fire Chief Kim Raddatz, stands firmly on the side of axing the CAL FIRE contract.
Directors William Kiel and Dave Rickards won reelection; Jeff Nelson, former board director, won back a seat on the table, ousting director Karrie Johnston, who favored going back to free-standing district status.
There were two slates, each with four candidates, in the running. Randy Dibb, the ninth candidate running, said he hadn’t made up his mind on whether to stay with CAL FIRE or not.
Voters, it seems, did not want wishy-washy stances. But why not approve candidates all on the same side?
Some voters we spoke with said they split their votes among the two slates because despite heated discussions on the issue, were not yet convinced which would be best for the district’s residents and taxpayers. Several indicated they hoped to see the new board fund an independent study rejected by the prior board to provide more confidence as to whether or not the district can afford to go back to being independent.
A prior board authorized outsourcing firefighting to CAL FIRE during the recession, when property tax revenues plummeted and the district got in over its head financially with spending on a training center facility that remains unfinished. The district was forced to eliminate an engine at its Dehesa station and faced further potential cuts in services.
Now some contend the district’s finances have improved sufficiently to return to local control as a free-standing district. (Some pro-CAL FIRE candidates have disputed use of the term local control, saying CAL FIRE to date has complied with all major requests.)
Those favoring return to independent status have pointed out that CAL FIRE firefighters are working much longer hours, leading to fatigue that could put safety at risk.
When the new board takes office, it could vote to undo severing ties with CAL FIRE, at least until the original contract runs out next year, though the Cal Fire slate failed to win a majority. To restore confidence of the public, one option would be to fund the independent study and carefully weigh its findings—however they turn out—before making a long-term decision on the future of the district when the contract comes up for renewal.
Below are the vote tallies with 100% of precincts counted, but some mail-in and provision ballots remaining.
SAN MIGUEL CONSOLIDATED FIRE PROTECTION
Vote for: 4
JEFFREY L. NELSON
WILLIAM A. KIEL
RICHARD J. AUGUSTINE
Correction: Article updated to reflect that the board does not have a pro-Cal Fire majority, since the pro-Cal Fire slated needed to win all four seats to retake a majority.