Citizens oversight group forms, will consider recall of board members
January 27, 2010 (Lakeside) – Residents of Lakeside directed heated criticism at the Lakeside Fire Protection District board. In a meeting last night, citizens charged that the Board failed to provide adequate explanation for the firing of Chief Mark Baker.
“You guys are in serious trouble, and you’re accountable for your actions,” Dennis Richardson, a lifetime Lakeside resident, told the board. “You guys need to be taken to the woodshed, because you did not listen to Lakeside.”
“A grave oversight has been made about a man who has done nothing but good things for this community,” said Milt Cyphert, chair of a citizens oversight committee that has formed in reaction to the Board’s decision. He asked the board to reconsider its decision. The newly formed oversight committee includes many prominent community leaders such as David Kassal, founder and chair of the Cedar Fire Recovery Group.
The oversight committee plans a meeting this Friday at 6:30 at the Ranch House Restaurant in neighboring Santee. Several insiders have revealed that the agenda will include discussion of a possible recall effort against three planning members who voted to oust Baker.
Several Lakeside residents protested that they were not informed about the meeting at which the decision to terminate Baker’s contract was made. The Board posted a notice at the Post Office and at the Fire District headquarters 24 hours before the meeting. Hilda Mendoza, legal counsel for the district, said the notice, while short, met legal requirements.
“So legally you covered your ass, and morally you buried mine,” snapped Cynthia Smith. “Why were we not given more notice than 24 hours? The Post Office and this building are not places that I frequent.”
Ray Lutz, founder of www.CitizensOversight.org, a watchdog group, had this to say to the board. “You can also unvote things,” he said, but added that Baker probably wouldn’t want to come back if asked. But he added, “The public wants to know what the reason was…They want to know that it was a good reason.”
Mendoza noted two reasons were cited in the resolution to terminate Baker’s contract: loss of confidence and incompatability of management style. That explanation drew guffaws from the crowd. She said details beyond that could not be disclosed as they would be considered personnel issues subject to privacy laws.
Some audience members also voiced dismay that the board is considering hiring a union negotiator at pay averaging $450 an hour at a time when the district is facing a budget shortfall and just fired its popular fire chief.
Sparks flew over other issues, too. Several residents voiced concerns over other potential budget cuts including potential reductions in fire prevention programs.
“I’m very concerned about cutting any kind of fire prevention programs. We need to cut the weeks from older people’s houses,” said one woman, pausing to wipe away tears, her voice choked with emotion. “I have a lot of older neighbors. . . We elected you guys—and you guys aren’t cutting it.”
A man who co-chairs the Eucalyptus Fire Safe Council spoke against cutting the capacity of the Fire Marshal’s office or cutting the liaison to the Fire Safe Council. “I’d hate to see that disappear along with my house in a purr of smoke,” he said, noting that inadequate fire prevention was done prior to the devastating 2003 Cedar Fire. “Fire prevention is the only thing that’s going to help. If you guys deny that, then you’re delusional,” he said.
A former director of the board echoed that concern, noting that in Lakeside, inspections of properties have been slashed from 2,000 to just 200.
In conversations with East County Magazine, some area residents disputed statements made by board member Liebig in a recent story in ECM.
Bob Robeson, a retired state firefighter, observed, “I’m seeing things in print that I did not see in the budget meetings…They’re starting to come up with some kind of reason to do what they wanted to do. Chief Baker never got any kind of negative evaluation…It was all positive.”
Robeson said he sat in on budget meetings and disputed Liebig’s contention that firefighters have taken pay cuts, noting that firefighters have received a $200,000 total raise in benefits. He said Chief Baker wanted everyone to take a 2% cut to avoid lay-offs or cuts in fire protection services, but that other board members objected.
He also disputed Liebig’s statement that Baker wanted to spend down the reserve fund. “The union and the Chief put together five options together and said `We’re going to study and pick one of them, or all of them,’” he recalled. “They went into a committee meeting I sat in on and the union said we’re not talking about any cuts at all.” According to Robeson, dropping down to 10% of reserves “was the Board of Directors’ decision. “ He said the Chief merely complied with the Board’s wishes.
Liebig also misquoted the district’s budget, which is $10 million, not $12 million, and gave incorrect information on the number of stations that the department previously had, Robeson asid.
“The Chief, his whole thing was not to ever have to fire anybody,” Robeson concluded.
Dave Thomas, a long-time resident of Lakeside, criticized board member Nick Johnson’s statement that citizens should go to board meetings to know what’s going on. “That’s a lie. I’ve been going,” he said, adding that Liebig has also made inaccurate statements. “I met with him personally the other evening and talked with him for probably over an hour. It’s scary. He’s got so many inconsistencies.“ Asked what Liebig told him about the Chief’s dismissal, Thomas said, “At the end, he said we’re firing him because we could.”
Thomas recalled when Lakeside relied on a volunteer department. “They started out with nothing. It was all donated time,” he recalled, then noted that the Lakeside Fire Department proved unable to prevent the 2003 Cedar Fire from killing 14 people in Lakeside.
“These three guys are out of touch with the community,” he said of the board members who voted to oust Baker. “On Chief Baker’s watch, we felt comfortable.”