On Monday, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Board of Directors were tasked with providing staff direction on moving towards an elected board.
Staff recommended the Board direct staff to prepare a resolution for consideration at the November Board meeting to place a single measure before the voters at an all-mail ballot election on March 6, 2018 to both reduce the size of the Board to 5 members and have these members elected by division.
The Board agreed with staff on two of the three items and determined divisions would not be best for the District.
In a 7-2 vote, the board decided that the future elected board would be an at-large five member board beginning in 2018. That decision came after about an hour long discussion debating districts (wards) versus an at-large district.
The ECCFPD Board is currently made up of four-members appointed by the City of Brentwood, three-members appointed by the City of Oakley, and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors appoints two members from the unincorporated areas.
During public comments, Mark Whitlock of Bethel Island spoke in favor of divisions to ensure fair representation and agreed with the staff presentation.
“I believe the 5-member board is a lot more practical in trying to deal with all the board members and the going by Divisions is the only way I see anything being feasible to keep the outlying areas even having some resemblance of having representation,” explained Whitlock. “We can’t have five members from any given 5-block area, city or community, it just doesn’t work and it scares me to death for my community.”
Vince Wells, President of Local 1230, supported the idea of shrinking the board to a five-members stating he believed the Board should not limit its candidate base through Districts but keep it open to the best five candidates within the entire District.
Director Joe Young shared his concerns with the staff recommendation saying he believed a mail vote in March and that five board members were the right numbers, but did not think they should go to districts—but rather at-large.
“The concerns I have with trying to create wards within the District, there is a number of them,” stated Young. “Looking at the numbers, everybody would like to have wards because we are going to get individual representation, but the directors of the District need to be directors of the District not directors of a particular area trying to guide my fire station. From that standpoint, I think all the directors need to have a District wide view. The main questions that come up that might drive wards are where are our fire stations going to be located”
He noted that the stations are located based on population density while referring to the Citygate report. He questioned since they place stations based on population density, wards served no other purpose.
“If you go to a five-member board, each ward would be between 20,000-25,000 people, if you are worried about the small areas, there is no way we can draw wards that would create representative basis for those small areas,” explained Young. “It’s going to focus around the population centers. You can see Bethel Island at 2,000, Byron at 1,200, Knightsen at 1,500, most likely Wards they are going to be split up in Oakley based population or partly in Discovery bay—neither of which will get them representation of what they are visioning.”
He further explained that all these small communities will be blended with larger population centers while saying that the idea wards would create representation was misleading. He added the public could always by referendum to request that they go to wards.
“I still believe that we need to be a mail ballot, five directors and at-large,” said Young.
Director Susan Morgan stated she partially agreed and disagreed with Director Young saying she agreed with the mail in ballot and five member board, but says divisions made sense.
“While it’s true any five directors elected serve the entire district, I do see an advantage even for a small District,” said Morgan. “I will use Bethel Island for example… if they were to combine with part of Oakley to create a division, I would see a lot of advantage for someone on Bethel Island who would want to run for the Fire Board, they are only campaigning only in this Oakley and Bethel Island area, they are going to events, there would be some representation and it’s not at all the same as an at-large campaign which would be really daunting.”
She stated that in divisions, you can bring items that are unique to one area to the entire board as part of the discussion and add to the knowledge base.
“I am a strong believer that we should go to wards (Districts),” said Morgan. “The other issue you are saying if we don’t do it now we can do it later, I believe that once you have 5-people elected at-large, it would be almost impossible to get those people to agree to go by wards where they won their elections through a certain process to change it. I think a referendum would be even more difficult, so I think if you are going to do it, you need to do it now or recognize the possibility and probability of doing it later is very low, it’s now or never.”
Director Cheryl Morgan agreed.
“Wards have the district advantage that the person in the ward lives in the ward and most of the people in that district will either know who the person is or figure out who the person is and they will have a contact they can talk to,” said Morgan. “The public will have a person that is near them that they can talk to versus having a person, lets me honest if we go to an at-large district, the reality is all the board members are going to come from Brentwood. That is where the population center is and nobody, even in the towns of Oakley, the community of Bethel Island and Discovery Bay, they won’t be able to personally contact that person and bring their issues up, the person won’t listen to them. They come from Brentwood, they talk to people in Brentwood.”
Morgan said doing the Division was critical for the District.
Board President Joel Bryant asked Morgan if she had ever been approached by someone not in the area she lives in while on the board and ignored what they had to say.
Morgan replied “no”.
Bryant replied, “then I would ask you to consider the faith of the individuals that will be sitting in these chairs will have the same responsibilities and the same conscious. I think its unfair categorization that if you live any other District, that anyone who approaches you that you would ignore them,” said Bryant. “I don’t think that is accurate.”
Bryant explained how Morgan was misleading to say “regardless of where someone comes from in this district, that they would ignore the life of someone they represent.”
Bryant added, “many occasions, I have voted against the preference of the community I lived in because I felt as a District, the decisions we were making were better overall for the District… I believe that every person who has sat on this board, has voted that way as a District. Overall since I have been on this board, I don’t think there has been one board member, and we have had several come and go, but I have never had a single board member that I can recall vote against the overall well-being of the District versus the location they have come from.”
Bryant explained he understood why staff was recommending wards and why there is a thought process of where it would be beneficial, but called the arguments for it “extremely flawed” and “historically inaccurate”.
Director Young countered the statement that Bethel Island would do well to be mixed with Oakley because if wards were created, they would be between 20,000 to 25,000 people which would make Bethel Island still less than 10%.
Young explained how with 2,100 people on Bethel Island, their representation even within a ward was “insignificant” because they would be depending on Oakley to represent them.
“So they are depending on that ward member to think of them as part of the District and to make decisions that are good for the district and hopefully good for them. The idea that it isn’t going to happen without wards, I have difficulty with that because they are less than 10% even within a ward. Their representation whether its 10% of 1%, it’s not significant,” said Young.
Susan Morgan responded by saying since they have to campaign, it would be easier because they are campaigning in their own backyards in the area around them versus an entire 250 square mile radius.
“It becomes a little easier; perhaps there is a little more knowledge. It’s not a matter of would you listen, but have you experienced it enough to really understand and bring those arguments forward. I just think it provides much more fairness to everyone,” said Morgan. “it creates a little easier way to have more variety of representation, the idea that you would have 5-people from Brentwood, I don’t know if that is a given necessarily, I don’t buy that at all.”
Bryant stated he didn’t think they have 5-members within the District who would really want this.
“It’s a good size district, that is why you do it,” said Morgan. “I don’t see how it could be harmful, it creates more opportunity for more people.”
Young stated that Bethel Island, Knightsen and Byron were just too small to make an impact on wards.
“I understand the appearance that wards provide better representation and if we want to have 9 directors, that might be the case, but at 5 its not. The Bethel Island example, they might have 2100 people and mixed in with another 18,000 to 20,000 people, the idea that because they are blended in with this group they now have a better opportunity to run and be elected, you are talking about a small number within a big group, I don’t think it really improves the ability to run and get elected,” stated Young.
Bryant then argued that even with wards, the smaller communities would still not get representation from their community because of the voting blocks in the larger communities such as Brentwood and Oakley.
“In the end, you get exactly the same thing if it was at-large, except you don’t have the problems later on with census requirements and with other issues with the divisions would cause that most other districts, tested the waters and said that’s not an efficient way to run a district ” said Bryant. “The reality is there is no way if you break it into five wards, to guarantee there is representation from smaller populous.”
Cheryl Morgan agreed there was no way to guarantee it, but if you made it an at-large district, it’s pretty ensured there would be no representation from the minority areas.
“If a board member is going to represent this district, they are going to have to consider every single life in this District,” said Bryant.
Morgan argued that the voting public within the District wants to be represented and if you do an at-large district, vast majorities of this District would then not feel represented.
Bryant stated he disagreed.
“I ran the numbers on the amount of money I make on this board per year, it costs me $5,000. I don’t make a dime I pay $5,000 of time and gas to be on this board,” stated Bryant. “Taking this Board down from 9-to-5 is a matter of survival, I don’t think there are 9 people who when they realize what this job is and the time involved and the stress in it and the cost involved in it, you are going to pay to run to sit in a seat that is going to cost you $2000 to $5000 a year with no payback.”
Director Erick Stonebarger stated he was in favor of a mail vote based on the timeline they were working with and a five-member board. He was also in favor of “at large” elections.
“I believe as soon as you go to wards, you drastically reduce your representation,” stated Stonebarger. “I feel that every time I go to the county and try and get something through or make my argument, I feel like I get one really good ear that is listening and four that is alright our time is up. I think that District is much better represented by an at large group, when you start segregating everybody you go down to the same path we have struggled with which is breaking that district up as a component.”
He argued the voters have the responsibility to put the best five-candidates on the board.
Director Brian Oftedal stated he was torn on the idea of Districts vs. at-large because he saw positives on both sides. He explained that as a Board member, although he was appointed by the City of Oakley, he feels he represents everybody instead of a single community within the District.
Joy Bensen, appointed by Brentwood, stated she was in favor of at-large because you would get a better candidate pool for voters to select from.
Bob Kenny, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, stated he was not opposed to either way but was not a big fan of change. He stated he liked the idea of keeping 9-directors but the consensus is 5-directors so he was okay with that along with an at-large board.
Adam Langro, appointed by Oakley, explained how ensuring people in unincorporated areas receive representation was very important but would also not make a decision to put them further out of coverage than they already are.
“I think I am leaning towards the at-large position on this because I think as a representative of the District I represent the District as a whole and not just Oakley,” stated Langro.
Susan Morgan shared that under an at-large district, it could have all five members from Brentwood, however, with divisions, it would be impossible for all representatives coming from a single community.
“It’s not just about the smaller areas, but it’s about dispersion even within the semi-small areas,” stated Morgan.
The board then voted to provide District staff of how to prepare going forward on an election.
Director Young made the motion that the District move forward with a mail ballot, a five member board, elected at large.
The motion passed in a 7-2 vote with both Cheryl Morgan and Susan Morgan voting against.