Criticized Hills fire district secures reprieve pending further review

Updated Oct. 14, 2020: Extension of the pathway system. Undergrounding utilities. Expansion of town hall. There are plenty of contentious topics dividing Los Altos Hills residents. As evidenced by the Oct. 6 Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting, however, the value of their fire district doesn’t rank among them; more than 130 Hills residents participating in the teleconference defended the embattled Los Altos Hills County Fire District, or LAHCFD.

“I’ve never seen one issue in which all 8,000 residents of the town agreed on something; we’ve always had a lot of philosophical disagreements,” Betty Kayton, a 20-year Hills resident, told supervisors. “We finally have an issue everybody agrees on. Folks, we need to keep our fire district separate, not combine it. The folks here locally understand the issues, know the issues and can best protect all of us.”

With a 4-1 vote, Supervisor Dave Cortese dissenting, the board acknowledged residents’ preference. The supes decided not to follow auditors’ recommendations to suspend the LAHCFD’s authority and consolidate it with the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, a unit better known as the Santa Clara County Fire Department. But whether the LAHCFD faces reorganization in the future is still contingent on a forthcoming countywide fire services review and an operational study.

The Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, the state-mandated agency responsible for overseeing special districts like the LAHCFD, will conduct the fire services review. It’s a task commissioners were already slated to tackle as part of a three-year workplan, but supervisors agreed the process should be expedited due to the ongoing threat of wildfires. Two of them, Susan Ellenberg and Mike Wasserman, are LAFCO members.

“LAFCO may end up recommending something a year from now, and I’m sure they will, and if I had to place a dollar bet, it will be to consolidate,” Wasserman warned viewers and participants of the meeting. “But what LAFCO wants and the board chooses to do are two different things. And I just wanted to leave that out there for anybody still listening to us today who thought consolidation was over, and now the possibility of consolidation coming back is still there.”

A consultant will undertake the operational study. The Office of the County Executive is expected to report back at the board’s Nov. 17 meeting with a timeline for securing an independent opinion about how fire operations across the county can be improved.

The future of the LAHCFD has been uncertain since May, when the Board of Supervisors’ Management Audit Division released a report containing a number of allegations against the district, including mismanagement of taxpayer funds, potential violations of California’s open-meetings law and failures to adhere to a competitive bidding process when awarding contract work.

The division’s audit recommended the board temporarily rescind the authority it has granted to the LAHCFD until further review. Meanwhile, a separate audit of the struggling South Santa Clara County Fire District suggested consolidating the county’s fire districts could help ensure financial and physical resources are shared.

Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents the county residents served by the LAHCFD, made the motion the board considered last week. In addition to receiving the LAHCFD and South Santa Clara County Fire District audits, his motion requires the former to make monthly reports to the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Government Operations Committee and its Housing, Land Use, Environment, and Transportation Committee through October 2021; instructs county counsel to alert the board to any proposed

LAHCFD transactions of concern; and ensures adequate outreach to members of the public possibly affected by any action.

Supporters rally

In addition to Kayton, last week’s impressive roster of speakers included current Los Altos Hills City Council members, former council members, prospective council members, town committee members, town staff and other Hills residents. By and large, they said they trust the district to keep them safe because its commissioners are local experts who understand Los Altos Hills’ unique topography, wildland-urban interface and narrow streets. They also insisted the district’s free programs, including dead-tree removals and brush chipping, are vital to fire prevention.

Margaret Brauns, a 27-year Hills resident, said the proposed resolutions before the supervisors no longer seem relevant.

“Six of the seven recommended actions from the audit have already been implemented by the LAHCFD,” she said. “The seventh, the suspension of the LAHCFD’s authority, is before the board today. It seems the audit is being used as a pretext for effecting the consolidation in order to gain control of the fire district’s budget.”

Noticeably absent among the public speakers was Adam Cosner, president of the Santa Clara County Firefighters Local 1165 union and a vocal supporter of combining the county’s various fire districts. Leading up to the meeting, Cosner hosted two press conferences urging supervisors to vote for a regionalized fire protection system he believes would more equitably serve the county as a whole.

Reached by the Town Crier Oct. 7, Cosner said he tried to make a public comment but couldn’t get through to do so. He expressed hope that further scrutiny by LAFCO and the independent consultant help make the county a safer place.

“I just wanted to make sure everyone understood we really did what we thought was the right thing to do,” he said. “We didn’t do it for money. We did it because we thought there was mismanagement. We hope this adds accountability to the whole system.”

Another member of Local 1165, Santa Clara County Fire Department firefighter Bill Murphy, did manage to speak at the meeting, however. Murphy directed his comments to Hills residents.

“Everything I’ve heard today is passionate support for a fire department and a fire district; it’s really what we love to hear,” Murphy said. “After listening, I think there’s far more agreement than disagreement. I think that it’s truly humbling to hear the passion that the community has for addressing the wildfire issue. … I can assure you the firefighters that are on the line today hear you as well.”


Sept. 20: Hills fire district supporters, critics prep for battle

Sept. 17: County committee vote delivers small victory for chastised Hills fire district

Aug. 28: County committee supports suspension of Hills fire district authority

Aug. 26: County firefighters urge Hills fire district merger

June 24: Purissima Hills Water District defends LAH county fire agency amid scathing audit

May 23: County audit proposes suspension of Los Altos Hills fire district authority

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