By Charlene Ayers, Ranters Roost
July 9,2016 (San Diego's East County) --Charlene Ayers, founder of the Ranters Roost discussion forum, offers pithy analysis and barbed views on the San Miguel Fire Protection District board meeting July 6th, at which the board voted 4-3 to end its partnership with Cal Fire and return to being a free-standing district. Below are parts 1 and 2 of her posts, reprinted with permission. Part I includes other agenda items Part II focuses on the decision to break off from Cal Fire.
To be or not to be…
The meeting was to start at 5:30 p.m. I got there at 5 p.m. because Cal Fire likes to fill the seats with their employees. There were only 10 seats left. There was not the usual sea of dark blue taking up the room, just lots of folks, families, in plain attire.
I plunked myself down in the empty seat next to Nick Schuler, Cal Fire, because it gave me the best view of the audience, speakers, and the Board. He turned to me and asked me to leave because he was saving the seat for someone. I said, no, because that seat gave me the best view. “Nice” is overrated.
Tony Mecham arrives. That seat was supposed to be for him. He had to look around for a seat which he found close by.
As he searched for a seat, the row of people in back of me, started making jokes about Tiny’s ride, aka the “Chief’s Ride.” The RUMOR, for which I am seeking documents from the CFA to verify, is that Mecham took delivery on a new command vehicle, and did not find the interior to be to his liking. He had it torn out and charged that expense to the County because that is where the money is ($17,000). CFA has until Friday, July 8, 2016, to produce the invoices, specs, after work docs on this vehicle…so far nothing.
Thom Porter, Southern District CalFire, comes in at 5:44 p.m. Someone gave up their seat next to Mecham for him.
[Director Dan] McMillan is working a small portion of the room revving up his troops to oppose the move to stand alone. He has tapped into the not-so-hotbed of the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association (GMIA) activists. He has roused them from their geezer naps to speak in opposition. They mounted a last minute campaign of emails to be read into the record requesting more notice of the proposed change and citing their confidence in Cal Fire. They do go on and on listing their histories and accomplishments, as if we cared. At best, they seem confused.
All the emails are read into the record, including a large number from the SMGFire folks and their families describing their travails with Cal Fire…unending 72 hour shifts, abandoned families, divorces, and loss of cohesiveness and comradery.
Item 2 was about hiring an independent consultant to assess the accuracy of the MICRO Study.
Patrick Walker, VP L2881, is opposed to stand-alone without outside review.
Andy Stiehl (?) (seemed friendly with Cal Fire guys) supports any review to be fully transparent regarding the numbers in the MICRO Study. He insists that the conditions of the “Transitional MOU (2012)” are not being honored as employees are entitled to.
Augustine, former SMGFire Director, who never saw anything wrong when Ghio was cooking the books, nor objected to Ghio putting the CFO off limits to the Board, wants an independent study. He threatens recall and a Grand Jury review. Where was he when we needed him? Ohhhhh, in Ghio’s pocket.
Kim Raddiz, retired fire chief, states that the CFO, Darilyn O’Dell, is the most respected CFO in the firefighting community. He urges Board to vet the MICRO Study that they have for transparency.
Criss Brainard confirms that O’Dell is renowned for her impeccable credentials. He adds that Ghio sidelined her. He calls the request for an outside review a delaying tactic.
I am grumbling just so that Schuler can hear, yeah, get CityGate they love Cal Fire.
Kiel complains that the numbers as he sees them in the MICRO Study do not add up. He disputes that there is any problem with Cal Fire’s 72 hour work shift. This from a guy who retired from CalTrans. He does not know of any study that says that this is a problem. He requests confirmation from Porter or Mecham.
McKenna helps out. She asks Porter if Cal Fire is studying a change to a 56 hour shift. He says it is.
McMillan, who claims his business acumen and his accounting background account for something like experience, posits that if there were problems, Workman’s Comp should have that information. He disputed the MICRO Study numbers as to how many firefighters will be required to return to the stand alone district. He thinks the number is too low, and that overtime wipes out any savings.
Rickards, long time director and BFF of Ghio, disputes the estimated costs of buying into Heartland Communications (HCFA). He thinks they will be much higher. He recites a list of costs that he thinks have not been considered in the MICRO Study. He adds that SB 239 might be triggered because of the condition that if 25% of the workforce is affected then a LAFCO review is triggered.
Rickards moves to approve the outside analysis. Kiel seconds. The motions fails – 4 to 3.
There is more discussion as to the noticing of this proposed change.
McKenna cites the invitations given to Cal Fire to attend the workshop, and the input sought and included from Randy Scales, L2881.
In addition to Ghio’s cooking the books on the alleged structural deficit in order to turn the district over to Cal Fire, he admitted to the real reason that Truck Company 15 was shut down. He said that the ballot for the Special Benefit Fee would have been fraudulent otherwise. He constructed a complicated domino effect of failing services to provide support for the ballot proposition which was stated to be the re-constitution of Truck Company 15.
Mckenna and Johnston reported this information.
Johnston supports “O’Dell’s numbers” because they are right-on.
Kiel returns to explaining his numbers.
Johnston and Kiel get into a kerfuffle about Kiel “demanding” that O’Dell poll the board. Johnston instructs him that he, as a Director, is not in a position to order any staff member to do anything.
Kiel harrumphs that it was only a “suggestion.”
Johnston insists that it was a demand. She said that she read the email.
Kiel points out what he considers to be an error in the preceding MACRO Study, aka Pie-In-Sky Study, complied by O’Dell.
McKenna informs him that he was the major hands-on player in creating that study. He did not find any problem with it until now.
The motion to require an independent study fails…4 to 3.
Item 3 is about staffing at 4 guys per truck. The idea is that if one of those guys on the non-ending consecutive 72 hour shifts still wants to volunteer, there could be 4 guys on a truck.
McKenna, seeing the troubles she has seen with the 72 hour shift, opines that there is not a herd of staff that could be brought into the situation.
Ek reminds everyone that at the start of the co-operative agreement, Mecham said that he did not have the staff to staff the Truck Company.
Johnston appreciates the creativity of the proposal, but she wants 3 full time staff, and does not want to rely on someone volunteering to take the 4th position.
Kiel thinks the volunteer-option is a perfect solution.
The Finance Committee recommendation to NOT accept the 4th person option…passes…4 to 3.
Item 4 is a proposed staff adjustment to the LG1 agreement.
Cal Fire got nervous about there being no “savings” expected for the existing LG1 contract for this and the next year. The “savings” thing amounts to the money that was not spent on the LG1, as it was bid at the highest cost per year. It’s a bunch of imaginary numbers which are used to sell these contracts. In this case around $1.2 million per year. So guess what? Cal Fire costs have eaten up all the funds allocated for the LG1 two years ahead of schedule.
Howell brings forward his plan to leave $300,000+ in “savings” for this year and next. Amazingly, Howell’s rope-a-dope staffing removes a big fat 0 from the underbudget and replaces it with $300,000+. Looks much better. No one should get the idea that they will NEVER be able to keep up with Cal Fire’s escalating costs. Sssssshhhhh.
Mckenna produces a chart of all the staffing changes made by Cal Fire so far in the LG1 which seem to short SMGFire.
Mecham asssssssures us that there was no nefarious intent meant in Howell’s offering.
The Board is inclined to go with the more money option. They unanimously vote to accept Howell’s rope-a-dope staffing changes.
PART 2 (Item 5 is about whether to leave Cal Fire and establish a stand-alone district)
Cory Mills supports the stand-alone district. He objects to Cal Fire intimidation tactics.
Michael Hayes’ wife is up next. She is weeping as she speaks. She reports that her husband was scheduled for training at about the time she was to deliver their baby. Cal Fire ordered them to induce labor so he could keep his commitment to them. There were some difficulties either before or after the birth that required that Mike stay with her. Cal Fire refused to grant him leave. He got an attorney to help. He won, but then lost when he was reassigned to Borrego Springs.
Stiehl (?) returns to the podium. He still wants an independent study. He does not want to go to stand-alone district.
Cederdahl, one of GMIA’s minor domos, regales us with his bonafides, as if they mattered. He does not want to return to a stand-alone district.
Patrick Walker, VP L2881, does not want to return to the stand-alone district.
Kim Radizz , retired fire chief, states that he believes in the stand-alone fire agency. He insists that getting through the bureaucratic red tape is easier. He offers that when SMGFire decided to go with Cal Fire, he and three other chiefs were there. All four said that they could have made that budget without going to Cal Fire.
Danny Guilliani, former SMGFire, now MCAS firefighter, said that he tried to make it work with Cal Fire but could not. He said that there was a big impact on his wallet, emotions, and medications. His wife laid down the gauntlet “choose Cal Fire or the kids.” He applied to MCAS and finished at the top of their list which he attributes to the quality of the training he received at SMGFire.
Sandy Lundstrom is wheeled in by her son to speak. Lots of joking about his driving abilities. She describes herself as a mother of a SMGFirefighter. She reports that during one of the big fires, his home burned down. She says that she is a cancer survivor who has had her cancer return recently. When the district was a stand-alone one, she reports that all the other firefighters rallied around to help each other. She says that she still needs help from her son, but last week when she needed him, he was denied any time off because it was “not on the books.” There is no brotherhood with Cal Fire, she points out.
Ron Quinlan, Station 16, reports that Randy Scales, L2881, once remarked at Quinlan’s dinner table that “only Cal Fire is dumb enough to work 72 hours.”
Mike Valley, aka “Chief Valley,”another minor light from GMIA, gets up tells us his personal history. He thinks that only whiners and lay-abouts complain about the Cal Fire working conditions. These guys are giving geezers a bad name.
Nichols , GMIA Prez, reports that he was not expecting such a long meeting, and that this is way past his bedtime. Everyone laughs. He insists that although he has learned a whole lot more than he ever knew before, there still needs to be more public education on this. GMIA has not cared enough in the past about SMGFire to attend meetings and be up on things, but they supported Cal Fire anyway in their “alert” to residents.
Larry Jackman’s name is called. He is a former Board member with lifetime medical benefits. He served as “financial advisor” to the Board. He was here but is missing in action now, a no-show.
Modesto Martinez, former SMGFire and then Cal Fire employee, says that he left SMGFire-Cal Fire in 2013 because the wages, work conditions, and hours did not work for him. Bob Cederdahl slimed the old SMGFire by claiming that firefighters only worked there for the benefits. Martinez turns to him and reams him out by listing all reasons that he joined SMGFire, none of them about benefits.
The last public speaker to comment on this item is Criss Brainard, former SMGFire Director, and retired SDFR paramedic. He starts out insisting that this change to stand-alone is nothing about Cal Fire. He insists that there is no problem with their service. He says that this is to make sure that the district is getting what it needs.
He claims that the statewide pool of employees that Cal Fire uses to fill positions, and their hiring practices, are too impersonal to serve a district like SMGFire. He points out that to promote within Cal Fire requires that you be willing to relocate out of the district, which drains the district of knowledge and experience with the district. It also brings in people who know nothing about the district.
He claims that in the old SMGFire there were a handful of turnovers, and now, with Cal Fire there are a significant number of turnovers resulting in a serious loss of productivity.
He reports that all this is a result of the loss of local control.
He points out that firefighters have 8 times the risk of contracting lung cancer than the public at large. He says that the longer working hours, 72 + 72 + 72, etc. increases that risk even more.
He laments that the building inspections that SMGFire used to do are gone because they did not fit the Cal Fire model. He states that firefighters need to do those inspections to get to know those buildings and to understand what is going on within them.
There is no control over finances, no control over the contract costs with Cal Fire, he says. He points out that those costs keep going higher and higher. He provides some numbers comparing Cal Fire labor costs per employee, and claims that SMGFire’s cost is much, much lower.
Brainard sounds like the next SMGFire Chief.
Time for the Board members to opine:
Johnston is first up. She claims that she is not against Cal Fire, and cites some reasons as to them being a fine agency. She complains bitterly about the abuse that has been hurled at her for wanting to get out of this contract. She points out that this is not a sudden decision and that much thought and analysis has gone into it. She objects to being branded as the “worst person in the world” because she wants to go back to local control. She wants to control the number of employees who are sent out of the district on strike teams, and to be able to say “enough” when those demands are about to strip the district of its protection.
She talks about using CityGate to perform an independent analysis, and concludes after reading several of their products, that “You get what you pay for.”
She adds that her vote is not based on the threats that she has received. She says that she trusts Darilyn O’Dell, and her numbers, “Numbers are numbers,” and they say that the district is on a sure foot.
She concludes, “This is the time to do this.”
Mike Valley and Bob Cederdahl start shouting that there should be a vote of the residents. These guys who attended as many meetings prior to the Cal Fire contract being approved, as they did for this stand-alone proposal (none and next to none), did NOT scream out, or even politely insist on a vote of residents way back then.
Mike Vacio is steamed. He is ranting about how he has been treated. He exclaims that he has worked for the fire service for 30 years, and that he is a firefighter serving on this Board. He says that he takes both jobs very seriously. He objects strenuously to being accused of being under the thumb of special interests. He insists that he is not under anyone’s thumb, and that he makes his own decisions on the facts. He challenges the accusation that he is not a good union member. He responds that he has been a good member for 30 years. He states that he does not like being accused of things he never did. He’s outta steam so he finishes with “That’s all I have.” Laughter ensues.
McKenna states that before she decided to run for this Board she attended a lot of meetings, and noticed a lot of things that weren’t right. She described the problem as the Board’s lack of oversight over the Chief (Ghio). She says that the district never had a revenue problem, it had a spending problem.
She lays out her three reasons for returning to a stand-alone district:
1. Financial savings and long term stability
2. Local Control
3. Safeguarding district assets
She explains her reasoning and hands out a document to Board members:
1. Continuing with Cal Fire is proving to be unsustainable. She points out that there was no analysis of Cal Fire Co-operative Agreement prior to or after it was implemented. She states that if there were, it would have shown that the prediction of a $1.2 million underbudget amount for each year was not true. Chief Ghio used that to sell the contract. It peters out to zero after 3 years. She holds up a bar chart to make her point.
She concludes with “There is no question that we cannot afford to continue with Cal Fire.”
2. Local Control establishes control over the district’s own employees. She cites two instances where little or no discipline was imposed when a mail box was run over and there was an attempt to cover it up, and for when a Cal Fire Captain ordered an engineer to drive an engine that had mistakenly been fueled with regular gas. It was diesel powered. The equipment was severely damaged. SMGFire paid for the repairs.
She wants control over the district’s own employees to enable the district to enforce district standards.
She reports that 5 employees were hired without Board knowledge/authorization (Chaney) to relive the “forceback problem” that both Chaney and Mecham denied existed (Board Election 2012).
She urges approval of the stand-alone district so that SMGFire does not have to pay for potential Cal Fire raises in salaries and benefits.
She points out that two new Cal Fire agency contracts (May 2016) have conditions which will make it impossible to separate from them in the future: no way to opt out except by a vote of residents at the end of the contract.
3. McKenna wants to protect district assets which are two bond funds which will be paid off by 2020. That will release $2.6 million to be used within the district. She sees Cal Fire gobbling them up if the contract remains. She asserts that it is completely financially irresponsible to drag their feet on moving ahead to the stand-alone district.
She asserts that through her analysis that the district at this time is losing $100,000 per month.
She concludes that the district never needed to leave local control that the problem was a spending problem by the Chief (Ghio) and his management team.
She states that the MICRO Study describes the significant savings that the district would accrue over staying with the LG1 contract, especially over salary and benefits.
She concludes, “If we don’t get out of this contract now, we never will. Cal Fire’s new contracts require a vote when the contract expires…It’s now or never.”
Kiel reminds us that he was against the Cal Fire contract before he was for it. He cites his mathematical prowess for showing him the way. His numbers have brought us an obscenely expensive new fire station located within ½ mile from the new LFPD one to collect minimum revenues ($70,000/yr) from CSA 115 when he thought SMGFire would be collecting $300,000/yr.
I’m thinking that he should return his abacus and get a refund.
He insists that the money is not there for a stand-alone. His numbers again. He claims that when Cal Fire took the district in to save it, the district was losing money.
He pledges to vote his conscience because he is not going to risk the future. He insists termination is not in the district’s best interest. He claims to be looking out for the employees and their families whether they believe it or not.
McMillan starts out bloviating about his Marine Corps experience. He offers that he “understands” being away from home because of it. He adds, “It was my job.” He now goes to his experience as a businessman, and starting up 10 businesses.
Interesting research project: McMillan’s Superior Court records and his US Fed Bankruptcy.
He moves on to explain some of those businesses were successful and some were not. He offers that his business experience made him appreciate the importance of asking questions to get as much information as possible.
He does not think that he has enough information on the stand-alone option
He states that he is not going to support terminating the Cal Fire contract.
He describes Cal Fire as always professional, and as having a staff of experts which makes buying stuff much cheaper.
He throws out the scare about the grants (Indian Gaming Special Distribution Fund) having to be returned if the training center is not completed. This is a project that Cal Fire and the County are allegedly working to complete.
I followed the Indian Gaming Fund activities and grant distribution for years and for every one of those grants. I even wrote to the State Auditor to put them on notice of the shady dealings involving those grants. The State Auditor did ding the County, CFA, and SMGFire for their shenanigans, BUT no money was ever ordered returned, or will it be. They have no enforcement powers.
Nice try, McMillan.
He goes on about how Cal Fire has helped the district financially.
I guess he missed the part about them helping themselves to the district’s funds with sleight-of-hand percentage increases, and unauthorized staffing.
McMillan pooh-poohs local control. He states that local boards of all the special districts do a poor job of negotiating labor contracts. He insists that labor costs go higher when labor negotiations are done locally.
He objects to the district wanting to control the hiring, training, and firing of their own employees. He speculates that is a legal jungle and that the district might get sued.
He finishes with another peon to Cal Fire and their professionalism. He finds that they have done a very good job here, and for that reason he is not voting to approve this Action item.
Rickards reports that he has tried to look into how this whole process came about, and he “cannot understand why we are doing this.” He says that he wanted the MICRO Study so that the district would have bargaining points in the next contract negotiations.
He has reservations about moving forward because of the possibility that it will fail, and what would they do then.
He objects to the information on the stand-alone being from a single source, the MICRO Study.
He wants to see a transition plan to see how the stand-alone will be implemented. He points out that when Cal Fire came aboard; they brought money and resources into the district. He worries that the transition to stand-alone district may take longer than a year, and that there will not be enough vetted employees to operate it. He expresses his extreme reservations in doing this.
Vacio is called upon. He opens up with “We keep talking about how we are rushing this thing. It wasn’t. The only thing rushed was the Cal Fire contract.” He hands out documents to the Board which show a timeline between the RFP and approval of the contract based on audio recordings and minutes of Board meetings, 28 days - $68 million. He promises that he will not read the whole thing to us.
Joey interrupts. He says that he knows that he does not have a say in this policy issue, but he disputes the short time line. He relates that there were several months of negotiations before the contract was approved.
Johnston states that the idea of going to Cal Fire was being discussed in the Finance Com at least a year before the RFP, since June of the year before (2011). Ghio told her that. This deal was in process a long time before being brought forward.
McKenna starts to read the minutes of an old SMGFire Board meeting where a motion to proceed with a transitional plan was authorized (missed the date of that meeting). She wanted to confirm the timeline presented by Vacio.
Vacio disputes the claim that not enough notice has been given. He cites the UT’s full page ad sponsored by L2881. He points out that their facebook page announced and discussed it. He says that he is sorry that people missed all the usual notifications of SMGFire meetings. He thinks it too much to ask for him to go door to door plead with people to attend.
Johnston tries to move to vote. She cannot find the appropriate words to satisfy Joey.
He jumps in to clarify the motion. He does not want it to say that they are terminating the contract at this date and time. He thinks that there are a lot of things to be worked out before then.
He recommends the wording: that the district take the necessary measures to move back to a stand-alone district.
McMillan wants to know if they are going to give notice tonight or are they going to have another vote before this is sent to Cal Fire?
Audience erupts with a loud, Noooooo.
Mckenna thinks that an ad hoc committee should be formed which can come up with a termination date.
Joey’s recommended motion is: that the Board take measures toward a stand-alone district by establishing an ad hoc committee which will develop a transition plan with a date of termination.
Johnston says that is just what she said. Laughter erupts.
Vote is 4-3 to go to stand-alone district. Yes: McKenna, Johnston, Vacio, Ek. No: Kiel, Rickards, McMillan.
The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.