By Miriam Raftery
October 14, 2010 (Lakeside) – Six candidates are vying for three seats on the Lakeside Fire Board—a body that has faced heated controversy over firing its fire chief and an $800,000 budget shortfall. Incumbent Peter Liebig seeks reelection; two other incumbents, Key Coyle and Rick Smith, opted not to run again. Liebig faces competition from challengers Mike Anderson, Emad Bakeer, Susan Conniry, Milt Cyphert, and Jon Lorenz.
The issues facing fire boards are life and death--particularly in Lakeside, where the deadly Cedar Fire killed 12 people overnight after starting in the nearby Cleveland National Forest.
Lakeside has the County's highest wildfire rate. With Sunrise Powerlink set for construction through Lakeside (barring a court order halting the project) , fire danger will rise even as resources are squeezed. How to assure adequate firefighting and fire prevention, all while the County strives to consolidate some fire services, are key issues. So are transparency, accountability, and the role of the firefighters’ union in board policies.
The challengers include Cedar Fire survivors, a disaster response trainer, a military veteran, an ex- president of the Lakeside Chamber of Commerce, and a communications center director. East County Magazine sent questionnaires too all candidates. Anderson, Conniry, Cyphert and Lorenz returned detailed responses. Bakeer and Liebig did not respond to multiple requests from ECM.
Milt Cyphert and his wife, Laura, lost their Lakeside home in the Cedar Fire and chose to rebuild in this community. “I will do what is necessary to help keep it from every burning again,” pledged Cyphert, a Lakeside resident since 1992. Cyphert has been attending Lakeside Fire Board meetings for the past year and says he is well educated about current issues facing the district. “It was from my involvement as a citizen that I saw the need for increased transparency and accountability,” he said, adding that he is running out of a “deep concern for my community and a desire to make a positive contribution.”
The Cypherts (photo, left) co-founded the East County Community Action Coalition and Lakeside First. The former is a coalition of organizations representing 79,000 citizens opposed to Sunrise Powerlink. The latter is a citizens’ group formed after the Board fired Fire Chief Mark Baker at a meeting with just 24 hours notice to the public and no reasons announced, other the board’s “loss of confidence” in the Chief.
Milt Cyphert spearheaded an effort to recall board members who voted to oust the Chief, but backed off after learning how much money a recall would cost the cash-strapped District. Instead, he decided to wait until November—and run for a seat himself. He is a member of the Lakeside Chamber of Commerce, a business owner, and winner of East County Magazine’s 2009 Outstanding Citizen Award.
“As a co-founder of the East county Community Action Coalition, I will be sure to keep a watchful eye on SDG&E and the Sunrise Powerlink as it relates to fire prevention and fire risk in our district,” he said, adding that he is very concerned about “SDG&E significantly increasing the risk of firestorms in our community at the same time we are lacking the funds to address this increased risk.
If the Sunrise Powerlink is to go through,” he said, “the District should go after SDG&E for the extra money necessary to prevent and fight fires associated with it.” He noted that the environmental impact review for Powerlink makes clear that “it will be the highest class of fire risk known to man, right through the center of the most fire prone area of the nation And it will hamper firefighting by air, which is the only way to fight fires in our neck of the woods with the steep, rugged terrain.”
Cyphert noted that the public still doesn’t know the reasons why Chief Baker was fired due to the Board’s secrecy. “However I 100% disagree with the manner in which it was done,” he said. “Three union firefighters took it upon themselves to decide that the Chief was not doing things their way. They called a special meeting on a Saturday with only 24 hours notice via an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper posted at the community center."
He observed, "This not only is the antithesis of what government by the people is about, it set up the district for major lawsuits, broke just about every human resources guideline ever published, fostered distrust by the citizenry for the fire board and caused general upheaval of the operational function of the board,” he said.
Cyphert believes the Lakeside Fire District board's current majority of union firefighters and retired union firefighters has not served in the public’s best interest, creating an “inherent conflict of interest as these same firefighters are responsible for negotiating and approving labor contracts with the firefighters’ union." He said interests of the community must come first, while also being fair to firefighters. He noted that he is not anti-labor; his list of endorsements includes the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and he hires union workers at Cyphert Mechanical, his heating and air conditioning business.
His endorsements include retired Cal-Fire Division Chief Bob Robeson, current Lakeside Fire District Board president Rick Smith, Cedar Fire survivor Mark Hanson (Heartland Foundation executive director and former Lakeside Planning Group member) and David Kassel, Cedar Fire Rebuilding Resources Group.
in tough times, Cyphert is concerned about “those who will knee-jerk react by wanting to instantly slash services” to address deficits. “The downside is that it could actually end up costing the district more in the long run.”
He believes maintaining fire prevention programs is critical. “Nothing costs less than fires we don’t have to fight,” he observed. “Smart planning and strategy can help eliminate the severity, if not the number of fires we have to fight throughout the year. This in turn will save the district money.” He supports Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training programs throughout the district to teach citizens to help with prevention and disaster response efforts.
If elected, he pledged, “Each area within the district will have a fire-safe council, where training and self-policing will be implemented.” He also wants to have firefighters teach safe practices to children in schools. “These are all items that while not costly to the district, can save the district untold resources in the long run.”
With regards to the County’s efforts to implement a regional fire district, Cyphert called the move “a good thing for the county” but cautioned that Lakeside “needs to carefully negotiate the terms of this contract to assure that Lakeside’s needs are not placed second after the County’s needs. “Also as the City of San Diego goes into brown-out conditions, Lakeside will be playing a more vital role in helping to cover some of the outlying areas,” Cyphert noted. “We must maintain our vigilance so we do not give up protection of our own district in order to be the stop-gap for these others.”
The Lakeside Fire District has a $12 million budget currently. Cyphert said he is concerned over an $800,000 deficit that could swell to $1.5 million over the next three years, according to some estimates.
Cyphert says he’s built a strong local business and understands how to manage a budget. He offered several ideas to increase revenues for the district without asking voters to raise taxes. “Our taxes already are too high,” he noted.
He wants to push the County to let local fire marshals inspect new buildings and pocket the fees, instead of the County performing this role. The measure would increase revenue to the district but also help local fire officials become familiar with all structures in the event of an emergency.
As previously noted, he would also strive to recover costs from SDG&E for some firefighting and prevention expenses.
“Community-based training programs could not only be a source of revenue, but also cause the district to spend less on firefighting,” he noted. In addition, he observed, “billing other agencies for our services when rendered could be a way to recoup money,” though he added such a move would “have to be looked into with care.” He also would seek to find ways to reduce wasteful spending, reduce energy and fuel costs, where possible.
He cites the City of San Diego’s “pension fiasco” and the “painful saga of the City of Bell” as indications that pension reforms must be considered, as well as potentially renegotiation of wages and benefits. He noted that many Lakeside firefighters earn $120,000 to $150,000 a year plus medical, dental and other benefits and “almost a full retirement after 20 years of service. Granted, it is a very tough job, but they are not hurting for pay or benefits,” he said, adding that he will represent taxpaying citizens, not special interests. “I will take each and every item presented to me on its own merit and wll not have any prejudice because of any affiliation, association, business transaction or friendship. I am 100% independent and will think only of the best interests of Lakeside and its constituents.”
For more information on Cyphert’s candidacy, see is Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000076283826&v=wall&story_fbid...
Like Cyphert, Mike Anderson says he was motivated to run for the board by the current board’s 3-2 vote to oust Fire Chief Baker, an action he said “ignored the community support.” He added, “I was angry that the three voting for dismissal [including incumbent/candidate Peter Liebig] were clearly voting to protect the Firemen’s Association, not the citizens and taxpayers of Lakeside who elected them. I had never heard anything negative about the way Chief Baker ran the Lakeside Fire Department.” He attended the meeting at which the announcement was made that a decision to fire Baker was made in closed session and recalled many speakers praising the Chief’s efforts. “There wasn’t a single person who stood up to give anything but their support and admiration for Chief Baker,” he recalled.
A Lakeside resident for 44 of his 54 years, Anderson is a realtor and businessman who asys he has experience with budgeting, negotiating and “working with others toward a common goal.” He is past president of the Lakeside chamber of Commerce and a former state delegate for the East County Association of Realtors, as well as a graduate of the East County Chamber’s Leadership Program.
He considers “fire safety” the most important issue and wants the district to be “more proactive in our prevention, as well as continuing to have some of the best firefighters on the front line, supported by proper equipment.” That said, he acknowledges that balancing the budget in these tough times must also be done.
He wants to see more “balance” on the board and notes that Liebig is backed by the unions. Like Cyphert, Anderson is concerned that the board’s majority has shown “allegiance to said unions, not the voters who elected them…I would like to see the balance shifted to citizens who are concerned with Lakeside first, without a conflict of interest, especially in budget talks.”
He wants to work with the union to make “cuts necessary to balance the budget, where sacrifice may be shared by all.” Conversely, he noted, “when the financial situation in our State, County and District improves, as I believe it will,” he wants to see the district “spend wisely” and make necessary improvements instead of giving in to “outrageous union demands.”
He believes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and supports education, safety prevention measures, CERT training and other steps to prevent fires and keep small fires from becoming disastrous in scale, while also keeping an experienced and competitively paid team of emergency responders including firefighters and paramedics.
Asked whether he would support a ballot measure to increase taxes for firefighting or prevention, as some districts have sought to do, he said he would need to review budgets but that “in general I am of the opinion that we don’t need to raise taxes or otherwise burden the taxpayers without first making cuts where possible, as well as making wise financial decisions when times are better.” He did not offer alternative suggestions to raise revenues other than potentially “selling property that will ceases to be of use to the First District when each new fire station is constructed.”
On pensions, firefighter wages and benefits, he believes “the pendulum has swung too far” and notes that public employees used to earn lower salaries than private sector workers and business owners, offset somewhat by superior benefits and pensions. But now the situation is reversed, he suggested. “I understand that there are literally dozens, maybe even hundreds, of applicants for each job opening—that doesn’t suggest a profession that is underpaid,” he said. Noting that some firefighters are retiring young and starting second careers, he stressed, “everyone has to make sacrifices.”
Anderson called Sunrise Powerlink “a horrible, deceptive plan that SDG&E and Sempra cleverly blindsided our community with, and tricked others into believing it would be a benefit to San Diego County and ratepayers.” He sees fire issues as a major concern related to Powerlink and notes that not only do lines have the potential to cause fires, but also “the lines will make it more difficult to fight fires in those areas, both on the ground and in the air.” He also objects to the lines creating a “long lasting eyesore” in El Monte Valley particularly that he believes will lower property values.
Asked about the County consolidation plan , he said he’s not yet familiar with all the merits or detriments, but thinks it should be a balance of cooperation between various fire agencies in the County, eliminating duplication of services where possible while keeping resources, training and local management of Lakeside’s Fire District in Lakeside.
He said he wants to represent the taxpayers and citizens of Lakeside and will work “with the firefighters and their association, but not for them, to ensure the protection of the community that I consider to be my hometown.”
Although this is a nonpartisan race, Anderson announced his endorsement by the California Republican Assembly and the Republican Party of San Diego, as well as the East County Association of Realtors. He considers himself a conservative capitalist who believes in “smaller government, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility.”
For more on Mike Anderson’s candidacy, see his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lakeside-CA/345160461147#!/pages/Mike-Ande...
“My focus, if elected will be to work with the board to strengthen our core emergency response capabilities in order to provide for the continuing safety of our citizens,” says Susan Conniry, who believes that a community’s strength lies in “responsible citizens working in conjunction with our public servants.”
A Cedar Fire survivor, Conniry has extensive experience as a community and public safety advocate. Since 1997, she has been a disaster response trainer and worked with many fire departments, CERT and Fire Safe Councils to provide communities with information to save lives in case of emergencies. She is a volunteer member o the Lakeside Disaster Preparedness Committee and pledges to provide “the most effective and cost-efficient fire protection possible.”
“In 2003, I strongly advocated for personal responsibility in terms of preparedness in order to take the pressure off our emergency services personnal,” she said, adding that “there aren’t enough of them to take care of all of us in an emergency/disaster.) In 2007 she graduated as a member of the Lakeside CERT.
She is also a former member of the Santee Planning Commission, as well as past member and chairman of the San Diego County Assessment Appeals Board. She has also been a “successful business owner since the mid-80s,” she noted, most recently as chief executive officer of Backayrd Tourist, a nonprofit educational organization.
“My ongoing relationship with emergency services personnel has made me keenly aware of the issues that budget constraints place on the balancing of firefighters needs versus community needs,” said Conniry, a Lakeside resident since 1989.
She said “public safety” is the paramount issue, adding, “the needs of the District’s constituents are the priority of the entire Board of Directors.” She pledged to balance needs of firefighters and needs of the community and said both prevention and protection should be high priorities.
Asked if she would support or oppose putting a measure on the ballot to ask voters for more funding, Conniry replied, “As the board acts as a unit of authority, I look forward to this type of discussion with fellow members.” She supports “creative thinking in terms of increasing revenues” through other means but did not list specific examples.
As for pension reforms, firefighter wages and benefits, Conniry noted, “According to the Lakeside Firefighters, they have accepted a wage and benefit freeze and agreed to reduce retirement benefits helping the district save $150,000 in the current fiscal year (2009-10). These are issues that I am sure will be discussed again with the firefighters, their association and the board members.”
She declined to state her views on Sunrise Powerlink. As for the firing of Chief Baker, she noted that board policy makes clear that “hiring/firing of the Chief Executive Office (Fire Chief)” is one of the board’s primary responsibilities and that the Chief is to be evaluated by the Board at least annually. “This seems appropriate,” said Conniry, who is endorsed by the Lakeside Firefighters Association.
She looks forward to becoming educated on how the County’s consolidation plans will impact Lakeside and the Lakeside Fire Protection District.
Conniry is endorsed by the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
If elected, she pledged, “We will all work together for the benefit of the community.”
To learn more about Susan Conniry’s candidacy, visit her website at www.vote-for-my-mom.com.
A U.S. Navy veteran who served in two wars and recently returned from Afghanistan, Lorenz calls himself a “true blue veteran.” He added, “My time serving in the military has given me a better understanding for my country and what the Constitution stands for…I have served my country and now my purpose is to run for the Lakeside Fire Protection board to serve the community.”
He pledged to assure that fire protection and emergency medical services remain top priorities that will receive their fair share of limited tax dollars, while doing his best to make sure the district can continue providing high quality services in a cost-efficient and effective manner.
He is running to “lower spending and use of taxes, be a fair and non-biased board member, show I have no hidden agendas, and focus on fair wages and public safety.” He believes the board, along with firefighters and citizens, should “fight to keep local tax dollars in Lakeside and work on legislation to prevent Sacramento from continuing its raids on local government coffers.” He believes it is important to maintain core emergency services while looking for cost-efficient ways to provide support services such as loss prevention, community education and maintenance in ways that will benefit the community and the employees.
He believes fire prevention and protection “are not competing needs, they go hand in hand to make sure we provide for an effective fire service delivery system.”
On pension, wage and benefit issues, he said, “I realize pension reforms, wages and benefits are buzz words in these tough economic times. Do our firefighters make too much? Probably not. I would work with management and firefighters to see what things can be done and together create a plan for the future. My goal in running for the Board is not to penalize our employees, but to work together as a team to guarantee a solid future for the Fire District.”
He declined to comment on “rumors” regarding Chief Baker’s firing but said, “I think it is important that I maintain an open mind when it comes to this subject and if elected I can guarantee that I will act very careful when making important decisions such as terminating a manager. I am confident that the current Board acted in what they felt was best for the District.”
“While being a director, I will seek alternative revenue sources,” he said, without specifying which sources. He also pledged to present “effective policies” for cost efficiency and policies that “will allow our management team to function without board interference, while at the same time listening to the rank and file to meet the goals and missions of the Lakeside Fire Protection District.”
On Sunrise Powerlink, he said it’s a “very important issue to the Lakeside community” but added, “I must apologize for not knowing a lot about the details. I must however insist that safety be at the top of the list for our citizens and firefighters.” He said he needs answers to questions of whether power lines will hinder firefighting aircraft from getting water to fight fires, as well as safety of firefighters and the overall impact on the District’s ability to maintain fire safety.
He sees pros and cons to the County’s fire consolidation plan and would evaluate alternatives to the District to provide a “cost effective and efficient service delivery system that benefits the shareholders—citizens of the District. Full consolidation may not be the answer, but the sharing of some services, such as loss prevention may be a viable alternative. The Lakeside Fire District continues to be a pioneer in delivering emergency services to its citizens and I would hate to see that change.” He believes it is important for the Board to “listen to the Fire Chief” and seek input from firefighters and community members as well as board members and senior staff.
He has lived in East County for over 18 years with his wife and two children, attending Sonrise Community Church in Santee. In 1998, he began a marketing career with a nonprofit organization teaching character values to kids. Responsible currently for communications at a Naval warfare squadron, he volunteers Sundays at Sonrise Church nursery.
He believes his military experience has given him the qualifications to work on the budget, as well as skills in risk management, improving team building, and negotiation techniques. “Help me work in the community with the Lakeside Fire Protection Board and help me keep our community safe and responsible,” he concluded.
Lorenz is endorsed by the Lakeside Tea Party, Steve Johnson (leader of the Lakeside Tea Party), Assemblyman Joel Anderson, Santee Vice Mayor Brian Jones, and Jim Kelly, Grossmont Union High School District board trustee. He refers to himself as a “conservative person with straight truth on my mind, willing to listen, non-judgmental with a goal of making fair and impartial decisions.”
To learn more about Jon Lorenz, see his website at www.jonlorenz.net.