Despite scathing audits and pleas from fire officials to create a consolidated fire district, Santa Clara County Supervisors refused to dissolve the South Santa Clara and Los Altos Hills fire districts.
Instead, supervisors punted the decision to the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO. The group typically completes a comprehensive review of the county’s fire services every 5 years, but it has been 10 years since any similar review was completed.
County staff had recommended the districts be merged into a regional district after audits found misuse of funds, violation of open meeting laws, the use of private legal services instead of the county’s own lawyers and behaviors that put residents at risk.
For nearly five hours Oct. 6, supervisors discussed the recommendation. Almost three hours of the discussion consisted of comments from more than 130 residents, politicians and firefighters.
“Dissolution of proven trusted local governance should not occur without consideration of alternatives,” said John O’Connell, a resident of Los Altos Hills.
Rebecca Hickman, another resident of Los Altos Hills, said many of the activities that were criticized in the audit, including brush chipping, have been helpful for her as a property owner.
“We depend on the brush chipping and waste removal programs to clear our properties of hazards,” Hickman said. “I strongly believe the regional community-centered approach needs to remain in place.”
Some, however, supported consolidation. Santa Clara Firefighters Local 1165 President Adam Cosner has advocated creating one central fire district.
“Fires don’t know boundaries,” Cosner said. “It’s critical that resources are shared so that we can safeguard the entire county.”
Meanwhile, Los Altos Hills commissioners released a letter to supervisors opposing the changes.
“All recommendations in the audit report are achieved except for the suspension of the delegation of authority,” wrote Mark Warren, president of the Los Altos Hills fire district board. “This final recommendation is no longer necessary to achieve the recommendations of the audit.”
Warren argued consolidation was among the recommendations of the audit but not the only one discussed.
Warren said he believed increased communication between the Los Altos Hills fire district and the rest of the county would be sufficient to address issues raised by the audit.
But Cosner of the firefighters’ union said consolidation would get more help to firefighters on the ground.
“Firefighters are being asked to do more with less every day in the state of California,” said Cosner. “Every time I go to a fire, it’s the biggest one we’ve ever had.”
Bill Murphy, a fire department captain speaking on behalf of the union, said consolidation will create a strong regional system and work more efficiently to address the growing wildfire problem in the county.
“Whether you live in a hillside home that’s immediately adjacent to a wildland area or you live in the middle of the city, as you can see by the air quality we’ve experienced over the last several weeks, this is an issue that affects everybody,” Murphy said.
Supervisor Joe Simitian said he received hundreds of emails asking supervisors to reconsider the consolidation. Simitian also said he received a letter from supervisors from the
county’s District 5 dating back to 1974 asking for the same thing.
“What all this tells me is that there hasn’t been the proper job of outreach and engagement,” Simitian said.
Supervisors ultimately did not approve any of the items that were so hotly debated. Instead, they decided to allow the LAFCO committee to study options to increase fire protection throughout the county, not precluding the option to consolidate.
Supervisors said the review should be the highest priority and should be finished as soon as possible. They agreed 4-1.
Supervisor Dave Cortese was the dissenting vote as he did not support the scope of the LAFCO review, including consolidation.
County staff is set to come back to supervisors in November with a proposed timeline for the review.