Saturday, November 20, 2010

San Carlos sees red over CalFire’s withdrawal

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

At least, that’s what San Carlos officials are saying about CalFire’s decision not to submit a proposal to provide fire service to the city.

In a Nov. 18 letter, Acting Director Ken Pimlott cites “concern from regional Legislative members and significant opposition from local labor organizations” among the reasons why CalFire opted out of participating.

The letter does not explicitly state what members or unions oppose the idea of outsourcing to CalFire or even if either gave specific direction not to submit a proposal.

However, San Carlos leaders believe this section is a definitive sign that outside forces are at play.

“I’m personally sick. Maybe this is payback for Proposition 22. I don’t know. But I’m angry. How are we supposed to run a city and ask people to come in and give us their best ideas when you have unions and legislators slapping people around. What the hell?” said Councilman Omar Ahmad.

Ahmad and Councilman Andy Klein, both who sit on the board of the fire joint powers authority shared with Belmont, said they plan to ask City Attorney Greg Rubens at Monday night’s meeting to investigate if threats or promises were made to CalFire and if so whether it is illegal on top of improper.

Rubens for his part definitely thinks the letter is puzzling.

“I’ve never in my years of practice seen groups and people try to influence a situation in which the city lawfully put out a [request for proposal],” Rubens said. “If true, this is disappointing.

Rubens is waiting for the council on Monday to give him direction on next steps, if any.

Having just received the letter late Friday afternoon, Rubens was still evaluating the four reasons cited by CalFire.

“It certainly seems to me that somebody was interfering with the process,” Rubens said.

But Janet Upton, deputy director of CalFire, said there is no cloak and dagger in the agency’s decision not to submit a proposal.

“It was a totality of circumstances,” she said.

In fact, Pimlott explains in the letter CalFire uses a Partnership Agreement Rating Form which includes 14 separate criteria.

Pimlott said based on it, he is unable to submit a proposal because: The Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department JPA is set to expire Oct. 12, 2011 which is too compressed a time frame for completing a contract; the proposed partnership with San Carlos is only “marginally appropriate” because state responsibilities take priority; and the city’s finances have been tenuous for an extended period of time, leading CalFire to believe outsourcing isn’t necessarily a savings benefit.

Then there is the fourth reason on which city officials have latched — the “socio-political aspects,” as termed by Pimlott. Without the support of legislative leaders and labor groups, Pimlott said the partnership could face legal challenges for which CalFire would bear the cost and be cast in a negative light by the community and media.

Ahmad said he is stunned by the rational which he feels indicates handshake deals and back room politics.

Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, who is overseeing the fire service proposals for the city, wonders if there are larger ramifications. If CalFire can be pressured to pull away from San Carlos, couldn’t the same happen with other cities when the contracts come up for renewal? Also, what about other service contracts — could they also be shaped by political whim?

But Upton said there have been no conversations with labor and the only direct dialogue with a legislator was Assemblyman Jerry Hill who doesn’t even represent San Carlos.

Hill said he contacted CalFire out of his own curiosity. He wanted to know if CalFire planned to contract with other small cities and entities rather than focusing on its main purpose of fighting wild fires.

“How can they protect those areas if they spread themselves too thin?” Hill asked.

He also heard labor did not favor the idea but said he had no specific contact with the firefighters union or other labor groups.

The chat with CalFire he said “was informational not advocacy.”

Melissa Figueroa, spokeswoman for state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he did not weigh in on the issue.

Assemblyman-elect Rich Gordon said he also had no contact with CalFire.

Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, could not be reached.

Ed Hawkins, president of the county firefighters union, said he was also not involved.

“We’ve been pretty public with our opposition but I haven’t spoken with CalFire. I’m the president so I’m pretty sure I’d know if anybody did,” he said.

Yet, city leaders aren’t convinced CalFire came to its conclusion alone.

When the city began discussing outsourcing fire service, as it has already done with police and parks maintenance, CalFire provided an informal proposal. The economy was no better then and the city’s credit rating is good, so what changed? asked Rubens.

Moura, too, said CalFire just last week asked for more time to prepare its proposal.

Like Rubens, Ahmad and Klein, he can’t believe the agency had such a quick change of heart.

“I wish I knew what threats or promises were made,” Klein said.

Upton, though, said the process worked as it is supposed to and that moving from a preliminary position to a very different final decision is not out of the ordinary.

Although San Carlos officials have mulled outsourcing for more than a year, they did not formally agree to seek proposals until late last month. The proposals are due Dec. 3 although that date may now be extended.

Some estimates place potential savings at more than $1 million.

CalFire’s decision not to bid won’t stop San Carlos from outsourcing its fire but could make a large difference in cost and savings. Consultants from Tri-Data, hired to assess the city’s needs, said it could benefit from a contract with CalFire or Redwood City because they could share a station.

San Mateo County could benefit, too, according to Moura because it wants CalFire to find savings which could come from sharing that station with San Carlos.

The city had already began the 18-month dissolution process for the Belmont-San Carlos City Council when it heard the report and based on previous interest anticipated having several proposals from which to choose.

Yet the two most expected — CalFire and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District — said no within days of each other.

Two days before CalFire sent its letter, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he preferred a regional approach and thought it risky to join with San Carlos before it separates from Belmont.

Hawkins said he hopes the dissolution leads to regionalization.

“I’m hoping we make something positive out of this strange plan that San Carlos has hatched to get divorced from a department that has helped them for so many years,” Hawkins said.

But for San Carlos leaders the only positive they want right now is an identification on who may have influenced CalFire.

“Is everything we do now going to require us to kowtow to the Legislature?” asked Klein.

“This isn’t so much about fire now. It’s the principal and it isn’t supposed to be like this.”

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