March 11, 2009 (San Diego's East County)--The term "muckraker" has often been applied derisively toward media that dredges up evidence of official misconduct or neglect. But sometimes, muckraking--and a bit of public shaming--produces reforms by alerting the public and elected officials of a need to be filled. East County Magazine played a vital watchdog role this week in drawing attention to the fact that neither the County nor the City of San Diego had asked local fire chiefs for suggestions on "shovel-ready" projects--and that no fire stations were listed among projects proposed by the City or County for federal stimulus funds.
After we published our story titled "Where's the Pork?" (http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/707) , a TV reporter interviewed me and contacted public officials. The result? The County stepped up to the plate, proposing that stimulus funds be used to build or repair fire stations in rural areas, including Boulevard and Ramona. Because projects must break ground within 120 days of federal funding approval, the County has teamed up with rural planning groups to waive normal rules and fast-track permitting for the fire stations. While this may raise questions about the scope of environmental review, it will clearly improve our region's fire safety. http://www.10news.com/video/18876277/index.html.
The City of San Diego, however, has taken no such actions. After the 2007 fires, the City's own Fire Chief testified before a Congressional panel that the City of San Diego is 22 fire stations short of meeting federal minimum standards. Had those standards been met, Rancho Bernardo may never have burned. Senator Diane Feinstein, who chaired the investigation, warned San Diego officials that she foresaw "loss of life on a massive scale if nothing is done." Yet still, the City has failed to come up with a plan for more fire stations.
A fellow reporter confided that one official excused this lapse by noting that the city lacks for more firefighters and fire trucks, therefore he saw no need to build more fire stations--even if federal funds are available. Wouldn't it make more sense to build stations while funds are available for infrastructure projects, then come up with a way to fund manpower and equipment?
Perhaps insurance companies might agree to pony up some money, as two insurers just did to help fund training for firefighters in El Cajon http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/725 . Or Native American tribes might come to the rescue, as they have in the past with donations to buy fire trucks for our region. Bringing home the bacon used to be a point of honor among elected officials.
While the privilege can be abused, "pork" in the form of funds to build fire stations is a worthwhile means of protecting the public from harm, in my view. So I'll ask City leaders again: "Where's the pork?"