Former Chief Runs Against One of the Board Members Who Fired Him
By Mark Gabrish Conlan
October 8, 2012 (Lakeside) – The Lakeside Fire Protection District contains 55 square miles of land, 65,000 people, and according to its website, http://www.lakesidefire.net, “is primarily suburban residential but also has several core commercial zones, some light industry, and many rural/agricultural properties.” It has a significant wildland/urban interface — firefighter-speak for places where homebuilders have butted developments up against forests and other wild areas. In the last decade, that has proven a recipe for brewing out-of-control fires that have threatened properties and claimed lives—particularly here in Lakeside, which has been devastated by several of the worst wildfires in county history.
The district also has a history of bitter controversy, and two candidates in the four-person race to fill two slots on the district’s board are key figures in it. One is former Lakeside Fire chief Mark Baker, who was acrimoniously fired by a 3-2 board majority on January 26, 2010 for undisclosed reasons. The other is Jim Bingham, a fire captain and paramedic and one of the three board members who voted to fire Baker. If both Baker and Bingham win the election, some wonder how they will work together, especially since they have a basic philosophical difference. Bingham thinks that professional firefighters should dominate the board; Baker believes firefighters don’t belong on it at all.
“I don’t think that firefighters should be on the board,” Baker told East County Magazine. “[The board members] should be community and business leaders. I tried to encourage several community leaders to run, and when I couldn’t, I decided to run myself. I wanted to bring in a more managerial board instead of one dominated by the Firefighters’ Union.”
“I’m in the fire department myself and I know what goes on in it,” said Bingham. “I’m able to bring up things like why is there a crew staffing the water tender. The two board members who aren’t firefighters don’t necessarily understand that until we explain it to them.” In some ways the debate isn’t that different from the ones heard in school district campaigns over whether teachers should be on school boards: are they the best candidates because they’re the most knowledgeable about what goes on in a classroom, or are they just going to give the store away in raises to their colleagues and therefore jeopardize the district financially?
Baker said he wasn’t going to discuss his firing — he called it “a closed chapter” and said “I believe I behaved in an ethical manner” — but he was clear about what he thinks the current board and his replacement as chief, Andy Parr, are doing wrong. “I hope we’re able to look first at what’s in the best interests of the citizens who fund the fire district, and do a healthy and sustainable fire department,” Baker said. “If we’re doing things that are for the good of the community, then we’ll acceptably compensate the firefighters. Hopefully we can move forward in the reality of today’s economy and achieve sustainable wages and benefits.”
According to Baker, the worst thing the current board has done is reduced the number of people working in the fire department. “I want us to remain competitive [on salaries and benefits],” he said, “but we need to maintain services. There were four people in fire prevention when I was let go, and now it’s down to one and it’s being outsourced to the County. There are only two fire captains in the district, and we used them both in the Witch fire in 2007 when they were badly needed in the district. We have fewer firefighters, and no chief officers 75 percent of the time. It’s a $12 million budget that has no command authority 75 percent of the time. We’re down from 17 firefighters to 16.” Baker argued that the board should be cutting firefighter salaries and benefits rather than reducing the size of the force.
Bingham, in turn, says it’s actually more cost-effective to have fewer firefighters working longer hours. He said the district has already cut salaries by 4 percent, “and we’re probably going to have to do more cuts,” but he resents Baker’s allegation “that because I’m a firefighter I’ll be in the back pocket” of the union. He said that giving existing firefighters more hours makes more sense than hiring new ones because “it’s cheaper to pay a guy overtime than to hire another guy.” Bingham also said that the fire prevention programs Baker was defending were counterproductive because they took two captains away from field duty and instead had them “driving back and forth all day on district fuel.”
Asked if working a smaller pool of firefighters longer hours might lead to fatigue and harm the department’s effectiveness, Bingham pointed to his own experience. “I’m working 96 hours a week,” he said. “I came on shift Thursday [October 4] and I’m working Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Granted, most of my calls are medical emergencies [rather than fires], but I’d rather do 20 medical calls than what I did [October 4] in Descanso, when we had to ventilate a 1930’s house and do rescues. … Firefighting is a dangerous job, but in 30 years I’ve never seen fatigue affect how we do our jobs. … The firefighters are so professional and well-trained, they can take it.” He conceded that the district does need more people — indeed, right now the website is advertising for a “reserve firefighter” — but he said the current board is holding off on new hires until they finish the next round of negotiations with the firefighters’ union.
Baker, in turn, says the cutbacks in personnel are hurting the district’s effectiveness. “We used to have a charge officer living in the fire station 24/7,” he explained. “Now the charge officers are on staff and they all live outside the district, so they are not able to meet national standards on response time. That was done to maintain the union benefit packages. When you have to cut personnel costs, you can only do it two ways: either reduce benefits, or reduce personnel. … We have technically excellent firefighters, but we’re challenged in command staff and management development.”
He also doesn’t think cutting firefighters’ compensation will cause them to leave the district and look for better-paying jobs elsewhere. “Fire service is pretty closed,” Baker said. “It’s not as fluid as police. Retention hasn’t been an issue in the fire service. Firefighters don’t tend to relocate in their careers. But a little turnover is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Another criticism Baker had for the district’s current management is they canceled his program to get more brush engines for fighting fires along those tricky and dangerous wildland/urban interfaces. “We funded two brush engines, and now they have one brush engine and one reserve instead of two,” he explained. “Lakeside lost 30,000 acres in the Cedar fire in 2003, and we were the only area that lost lives. We lost five lives. We’re vulnerable to wilderness fires, and without adequate brush engines, it concerns me.” On his watch, Baker said, “we had 10 pumping engines staffed, which we didn’t in 2003, and we were able to keep the Witch fire out of Lakeside. The service level is dropping in the district.”
Bingham said the district is “at the minimum” in terms of staffing. He explained that each engine needs to have three firefighters and two paramedics, and they have to bring in a replacement if one of those five people is out sick or injured. “Mark comes from being a manager and fire chief, and there’s always an adversary relationship,” Bingham said. “Firefighters are not always happy with a chief’s ideas. The Lakeside firefighters actually gave [Baker] a vote of no confidence because there was no ear for the chief to listen. They realized there was a problem, and so did the board.”
Baker and Bingham aren’t the only candidates for the two seats at stake in this year’s election. One of the others is Ron Adams, who was moved to run because last year, at age 49, “I fought, battled and beat cancer. I had a lot of medical people look at me, and I wanted a way to give back.” He said he chose the Lakeside Fire Protection District as his way of giving back because “my father was a fire chief, and I’ve got another firefighter in my family,” but he had little to say about how to raise money for the district or what the issues are.
Adams did talk about the labor issues affecting the district from his own perspective as a union negotiator for Grossmont College.
”We have not been asked” to have anyone take pay cuts, he said. “We foresaw what’s going on in the economy. Firefighters see things most people don’t. Their training is different. Should they take pay cuts? I don’t think so. But I’ll have to get in there and see what’s happening.” Adams and Bingham are endorsed by the Lakeside Firefighters union.
The fourth candidate is Emad Bakeer, who makes his living running a community center for immigrants to help them get green cards and avoid the kinds of criminal charges that could lead to their deportation. He’s been on the Lakeside Planning Group for three terms and on the same ballot as he’s running for the fire district he’s also running for a fourth term on the planning board — and he’s running for the board of directors of Grossmont Hospital.
“We live in a disaster area with a lot of brush,” said Bakeer. “We need a new fire truck to serve the community as well as the homeowners.” He identified the big problems with the district as “lack of recruiting people and lack of money. … We have only three fire trucks and we need a larger staff. … East County is not even ready for the big fire.” According to Bakeer, the Lakeside district needs not only equipment to fight brush fires but a ladder truck to address fires in the big buildings that are starting to go up in the area. Bakeer also made it clear he thought that Baker’s firing had been a mistake: “He’s a champion, and they tied his hands and threw him in the water.”
Baker said the district currently has a ladder truck, but he’s worried that when it wears out the current board may replace it with a straight engine, thinking that if they have a fire that needs a ladder truck they can borrow it from another department in the area. “That concerns me,” he said. “You look at our buildings, and a 65-foot ladder [the size of the current one] is pretty applicable to what we have. I would hate to lose the existing ladder truck and not replace it. Even though we get assistance from El Cajon and Santee with their ladder trucks, we need to be able to do some aerial firefighting and aerial here in the community. … You also need the saws and rescue equipment, the additional [smaller] ladders the ladder truck will carry, and firefighters trained in the duties required of a ladder company.”
The candidates also discussed response times and financial issues. “First, it’s a matter of properly locating your fire stations relative to densities of population,” Baker said regarding response time. “Years ago, when one was placed in Riverview and two in Eucalyptus Hill, the population densities were different. When I joined the district, we did demographic and real-time studies and determined station one should be relocated one mile to Winter Gardens. But there was no money, so I started a capital fund. When I left, we were dedicating money every year to support [improved] response times.”
“Ideally, you have the community mapped out and you fill in the holes,” Bingham said when asked how the district could improve response times. “You look at the roads and the barriers, and put your stations where they best serve the community. We would like to be located better than we are, and that would improve response times.” Bingham also mentioned that some areas can be reached more quickly by engines from San Miguel or other neighboring communities, “but we would still like to serve our community better as the Lakeside Fire Department. We’d like to be able to get there in six minutes — actually we’d like to be there in two minutes if we could.”
Emad Bakeer said the way to address response time is to look for more money. “There’s a fund in Sacramento and we have to lobby with our district, our state senator, and Congressmember Duncan D. Hunter to help us the way his father did,” he said. “We are talking about the Santa Ana and we need to increase [the funding] by lobbying and fundraising. We have only two airplanes at Gillespie Field and they’re not big enough.”
Regarding how to fund the district, Bingham pointed to the problem virtually every local government in California has had since Proposition 13 in 1978, which not only put a lid on property taxes but put the state in charge of collecting them and determining which share would go to which local governments. “We’re funded by the tax base, from property taxes, and the state decides whether we should get more,” Bingham said. “There have been fiscal crises and declines in assessed property values, and that’s been the hard part. Quite a few cities, including San Miguel, are going to Cal Fire” — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — instead of maintaining their own fire departments because “they didn’t plan well, and I don’t think they looked at options soon enough to keep themselves in business. They’ll lose some of the ‘these are my guys’ spirit when it’s the state that’s running things.”
“My basic philosophy is that you earn money in two ways: when you earn it and when you spend it,” said Baker. “The basic funding is the property tax that everybody pays, and in Lakeside it’s 18 percent of the $1 per assessed valuation [the total property tax set by Proposition 13]. In addition, 30-plus years ago the district went to the voters and had them set a user fee of $50 per [single-family] dwelling unit, or $30 per apartment. There are some fees for service and a minimal interest rate on savings.” Baker added that he was appalled when he attended a board meeting at which they were going to approve the budget for the next year — and only three of the five board members showed up.
“There’s only so much in resources,” Bingham said. “I don’t want to have to close fire stations. There are salary concerns. I want to reduce the budget as much as possible without reducing the coverage for our citizens. They’ve increased the benefits and fire fees. It’s hard to go back to citizens and ask them for more taxes, but that’s one thing we’ve looked at. San Miguel tried that, and it was defeated. But look at today: the cost of fuel is going up. Everything is going up, and there’s less money coming in.” Bingham said there’s a double whammy hitting the district from real-estate foreclosures: not only do foreclosures reduce property values throughout the neighborhoods where they occur, but foreclosed homes are less likely to be maintained and more likely to attract squatters — which increases the odds that they will burn.
Baker and Bingham both assured East County Magazine that each would be able to work with the other on the board. In fact, there’s one agency on which they already do work together: the so-called “CSA-69 Advisory Committee” (“CSA” stands for “County Service Area,” which meets quarterly and includes not only Bingham and Baker (as an alternate representative from the Lakeside Community Planning Group) but Baker’s replacement as fire chief, Andy Parr, as well. According to Bingham, this group has existed since 1974 and helps coordinate paramedic services between Lakeside and Santee. “The last meeting, we voted on whether this advisory program is good to have, and of course we all voted yes,” he said.
“I don’t have a problem working with [Baker],” Bingham said. “I just want to do what’s right for the citizens of the Lakeside Fire Prevention District. Anyone who’s had interactions with our paramedics will tell you they’re the finest.”
Baker, in turn, said he’d have no problem working with Bingham on the board. What does concern him, however, is the priorities of the board members in general and the firefighters on the board in particular. “I’ve watched many decisions that reflected positions the firefighters’ union has that aren’t necessarily in the best interests of the district,” Baker said. “I hope we’re able to look first at what’s in the best interests of the citizens who fund the fire department, and do a healthy and sustainable fire district.”