On Monday, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District voted 8-1 to move towards an elected board should the voters approve the plan in November. It’s anticipated to cost the District $112,648.
The action was the first step in potentially allowing voters in November to decide if they want to be represented by an elected five-member board or to continue with an appointed board.
Meanwhile the Board failed to make a decision on whether or not the District Directors will be elected “at large” across the entire district or by “Wards” within the District. The board pondered asking the voters to decide which would add to their election cost in November. The representation model will be brought back at a future meeting.
Currently, the Board is made up of four appointed seats from the City of Brentwood, three appointed seats from the City of Oakley and two appointed seats from the County Board of Supervisors.
The move comes after a November 2, 2015, action where the Board approved recommendations of the self-appointed multi-jurisdictional task force created to address emergency fire and medical response needs in the District. On December 7, 2015, the Board approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Contra Costa County and the Cities of Brentwood and Oakley to pursue the Task Force recommendations.
The MOU includes exploration of a ballot initiative in 2016, which exploration would consider:
- transitioning the District to an independent district with an elected board
- changing the District’s name to clarify that it is not a “county” agency,
- establishing a citizen’s oversight committee to oversee implementation of changes as a result of a successful revenue measure.
According to Chief Hugh Henderson, the board has the ability to decide if the future board should be a 3-member board or as many as 11-members or if the representation model should be “at large” or by District/Ward.
“In the initial LAFCO documentation, it said the Board should do this. It’s never gone to the public and I don’t know if there is ever a good time to do it but it seems with the work of the Task Force, the request by the Board of Supervisors, it appears to be the right time to move forward with this,” said Henderson. “The discussion has always been that at some point this board needs to move forward and be out on its own feet as an elected board. I believe this is the right time to get this going because it’s a two-step process.”
During Board Discussion, it was highlighted that if the Board decided to go for “wards” vs. “at-large” that each ward would have to have the same number of residents and each area of the District would have to be included in one of the wards.
“Everyone would be included and we would just have a bunch of weird lines and we would adjust every 10-years based on the census,” stated Erick Stonebarger. “There is equal representation from across the District. One of the arguments would be if you went that route then the City of Oakley and City of Brentwood would be able to participate in multiple wards if those lines were drawn according. You could have a Brentwood resident representing Oakley in certain wards”
Director Joe Young stated that because of perception, they had to go forward with an elected board.
“I do think we should look at a ward based approach because we have a district that has varied service needs. Because of the draft study, we are soon going to be providing different levels of service to different parts of the District. That becomes problematic when some of those areas who have lower levels of service, feel they have no representation on the board because the people with high service elected all the board members,” explained Young. “I would like to see both options put to the public and see the issues debated as to we should have an elected board and if it should be at large or elected.”
“I feel very strongly it should be by ward and if we pay careful attention to how the lines are drawn to make sure that every type of area has representation because it would be very easy to have Brentwood and Oakley having the ability to steamroll the rest of the lower density population areas,” explained Pope. “Yes we need an elected board. I think five is a good number and by Districts or wards.”
Director Cheryl Morgan called on history of the Board and people need to remember how the District was formed and how it was asked to take over Byron’s District. She was not in favor of the move.
“I think this issue, whether we have five from different wards or at large, the majority of the voters are from Brentwood and Oakley, they are buying the District,” stated Morgan. “They want to control the Board, I get it, they are the majority. I think my area is not the majority and we are no longer going to have representation…. I have no illusions that once this board has no representation from any of the unincorporated areas, they will no problem cancelling the Amador contract and closing our station. From my position, I’d much rather be a rabble-rouser than sitting on a board, but I don’t think this is going to end up good for the District.”
Director Ron Johansen stated he always wanted this to be an elected board but saw both benefits and challenges with either decision.
“We should allow the voters to decide if it should be wards or at large. But I caution that if we do a district wide election, we watch carefully how these lines are drawn,” said Johanson. “I think it’s the public’s decision to make, not ours.”
Director Meghan Bell stated she was in full support of becoming an elected board calling it critical but was torn on a voters choice. She noted it was important that they have wards that ensured every area of the District was represented.
“There needs to be a way for the unincorporated to be heard and that one city does not have dominance over another, especially with the decisions going forward. I would like to see a number larger than five; I understand when you increase the number you are making it more difficult for decisions to be made. I know it’s difficult for all 9 of us to gather at times due to commitments. That leaves the number 7,” said Bell. “I am in strong support of an elected board.”
Director Young added that they have 115,000 people, with 5 wards you have about 23,000 per ward which means 1 ½ in Oakley, 2 ¼ in Brentwood and the rest spread out.
“Going above 5 directors on an elected board is very difficult and you will run into situations where those offices are not filled,” said Young. “It takes time and money to run for office and to come up with 7 or 9 is very difficult. All the other districts are using 5 as their model and that is the direction we are going I think.”
Director Stonebarger stated he gets the concern about the unincorporated not getting representation but called it unfounded highlighting if they really wanted the Amador contract gone they would have already done it.
“I think an at large is the best way to represent the District,” said Stonebarger. “If you go with a ward, that is great, I am not going to fight a big fight about it but I want us to understand the math that with 114,000 people on that’s 22,800 people per ward. Therefore, an example would be Brentwood would have three opportunities, that is a majority. Oakley would have 2 opportunities. If you change it to 7-wards, the math doesn’t change,” said Stonebarger. “I would make the argument that if you go by ward, the cities have more of an opportunity to control the district.”
Director Morgan argued no matter how you design the wards, the cities control the vote over the unincorporated areas.
Director Johansen stated that whoever is elected to the board has a responsibility to represent the District as a whole and if they don’t do that, the voters can vote them out.
“I understand the concerns, but not a chance because the reality is this district is responsible for its residents regardless its one resident in a rural location or an area of 10, 000,” said Bryant. “This is why it’s called a fire protection district. Whether its ward or at-large, the responsibility of this board remains the same.”
The District discussed the idea of asking the public two questions at the next election with the first being do you want to go to an elected board—needing 50%+1. The second question would potentially be does the public want an “at-large” representation or by “District”.
Director Erick Stonebarger made a motion to move forward with a 5-person elected board and to come back to options of whether its “at large” or by “district”.
The motion passed in an 8-1 vote with Morgan voting no.
Chief Henderson stated their plan is to bring back the information at a special June 20, 2016 board meeting where the Board will discuss further language and costs.