Move ignites anger among many community members; residents convene meeting Friday to discuss recall of Board members
January 20, 2010 (Lakeside) – By a 3-2 vote, Lakeside’s Fire Protection District on Saturday voted to oust Fire Chief Mark Baker, despite testimony from 18 members of the public who all spoke in favor of renewing Baker’s contract.
“We are shocked,” said Laura Cyphert, co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition. “Chief Baker has been a strong contributor to our efforts to bring awareness to the community of Lakeside about the fire dangers that will be realized if the Sunrise Powerlink is constructed. It was Chief Baker that spoke up at the Lakeside Planning Group meeting back in February 2009 and first alerted our community that the Sunrise Powerlink was classified as a level 5 fire risk (the highest possible threat level) and stated that he was concerned about the unmitigated fire threats to our community, particularly in El Monte Valley.”
Board president Rick Smith and member Key Coyle voted against giving Baker the axe, while members Jim Bingham, Nick Johnson, and Pete Liebig voted for the motion to not renew Baker’s contract.
Division Chief Andy Parr was named interim department head until a new chief is appointed. Parr faced criticism following the 2003 Cedar Fire (photo), when he was the duty chief in charge, for not getting word out in time to save 14 people who died in Wildcat Canyon. He has defending his actions, noting that his department did save "thousands of lives" by notifying residents to evacuate.
Smith described Baker as “an excellent chief” and expressed anger at the decision, the Union-Tribune reported. Baker has served as chief since summer 2004.
Dennis Richardson, a lifetime resident of Lakeside, blamed the decision on union issues and said the board has been “infiltrated” by the firefighters’ union. “This leaves us voters and taxpayers very vulnerable to poor choice spending of our tax dollars within the department.”
Richardson sent an e-mail inviting citizens to a meeting on Friday, January 22 at 6:30 p.m. the Ranch House Restaurant, 11510 Woodside Avenue in Lakeside. He proposes forming an oversight committee to monitor the fire board. He also proposes a recall action to remove two newly appointed board members and will also ask citizens to assist in finding candidates to fill three seats up for reelection this year as well as the two recalled seats.
Peter Liebig, a member of the Lakeside Fire Protection District board, spoke with East County Magazine today about his decision to vote to terminate Baker’s contract. “We’re actually very good friends…this is heartbreaking,” he said. “I know there is a lot of emotion and people out there saying it was the union, but it wasn’t with me. There were other issues.”
Liebig said the board differed with Baker over how to deal with budget issues. The state has been taking $2 million a year from the board’s budget and took an additional $1 million this year, he noted. “There were pay cuts last year. Everybody took a 2% cut. We’re looking this year at anywhere from 4 to 6% in pay reductions.”
According to Liebig, Baker wanted to take money from the reserve fund to cover budget gaps. “It was going to take our reserves down below 10%,” he said. “It took us years to set up that reserve.”
Liebeg said the $12 million budget is the same as in 2004 or 2005, when the department had six stations and two fewer administrative fire chiefs than now. “I said hey, we need to look at the possibility of having to cut services and demoting people.” He said Baker is leaving with a good benefit package. “He didn’t get fired.. We’re not renewing his contract,” he said. “Mark is a very likable, nice guy, very good out in public…but basically I lost confidence in the man.”
The actual resolution passed by the board, however, was to "terminate" Baker's contract due to a "loss of confidence."
Nick Johnson, another board member, declined to discuss his reasons for voting to oust Baker. “We have been advised by legal counsel not to talk about this,” he said. “I encourage community members to go to their local board meetings to find out what’s going on, because that’s where they will find out the truth.”
Board member Jim Bingham also declined to comment.
Bob Robeson, a retired CalFire and San Diego firefighter, praised Baker and said most community members approved of his managing of the department, including its budget, the Union-Tribune reported.
Chief Baker responded to East County Magazine’s request for comment with an e-mail stating he wants time to reflect before commenting on the Board’s decision, but did offer his appreciation to members of the public.
“I was completely awestruck about the community support ,” he said, adding that he feels “greatly humbled and very, very grateful for their support.” The departing Fire chief concluded, “Thirty-seven years of being a firefighter and public servant, I always reminded myself that it is ALL about the community and the citizens we serve.”