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‘By the book’: A chastised fire district’s progress report

El Monte Fire Station
Megan V. Winslow/Los Altos Town Crier
Pre-pandemic, Los Altos Hills County Fire District meetings took place at the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s El Monte station, above.

In October, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors accepted an auditor’s recommendations for monitoring the Los Altos Hills County Fire District following the auditor’s allegations of mismanagement. Nearly five months later, the fire district continues to make strides toward compliance, representatives from the district, the board and even the auditor affirmed last week during status updates reported at various meetings.

“We’re showing that we’re not only complying with the recommendations, but also the advancements we’re making in a very rapid order to do a lot of things above and beyond what the district was doing a year ago or six months ago,” said J. Logan, general manager of the fire district.

Logan delivered her remarks during the district’s Feb. 16 meeting, which took place hours after she provided her latest update to the county Housing, Land Use, Environment and Transportation, or HLUET, committee. Per a Board of Supervisors decision, she is required to report the district’s progress monthly during both HLUET meetings and meetings of the Finance and Government Committee until October.

Auditor Cheryl Solov’s assessment of the Los Altos Hills County Fire District, published in May, advised the Board of Supervisors to suspend its delegation of authority to the district until it considers the results of county attorneys’ assessment of her findings: improper allocation of $22 million in taxpayer funds to prune trees on private property and another $6.4 million to pay for water supply infrastructure updates deemed the responsibility of other parties; failure to follow protocols in line with the Brown Act, a state law meant to ensure transparent government; unnecessary fire protection services such as tree removals in low-risk areas; and the awarding of contracts without competitive bidding and proper legal oversight.

Under county counsel supervision, the fire district in recent weeks has undertaken projects to reduce fire risk, including collaborating with the Purissima Hills Water District to add new fire hydrants and relocating and replacing old ones, creating fuel breaks of vegetation along Page Mill Road to slow the spread of fire and continuation of brush chipping programs in coordination with the Santa Clara County Fire Safe Council, Logan reported.

A management consultant is also assisting with digitizing and organizing district records, and a county attorney presented a mini-Brown Act refresher course for district commissioners last week, two efforts toward improving transparency.

“There is nothing that, in our view, could have been implemented at this point that hasn’t been implemented at this point,” Solov told HLUET committee members when asked about the district’s progress.

Supervisor Joe Simitian, vice chair of HLUET, chimed in as well.

“I can’t help but comment: I think this is now the fourth month in a row we’ve had a clean report from the district under the auspices of this committee and with oversight from our management audit team,” he said. “That’s gratifying.”

Simitian has been a consistently vocal champion of the Los Altos Hills County Fire District. As the county supervisor for District 5, he represents Los Altos Hills residents, many of whom wish to retain the autonomy of their fire district; more than 130 residents who participated in an Oct. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting defended the district and stated they opposed a proposal to consolidate it with the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

Before revoking the district’s authority and pursuing consolidation, wouldn’t it make sense to first thoroughly examine fire services countywide? Simitian asked his colleagues once they heard from Hills residents. He sought to address supervisors’ concerns by making a motion that both required the district to provide the monthly progress updates as well as initiated evaluation by the Office of the County Executive and by the Local Agency Formation Commission of Santa Clara County, or LAFCO, which oversees potential changes to the boundaries of cities and special districts. Four of the five supervisors agreed, and the motion passed.

Vendors interested in performing the County Executive and LAFCO reviews began submitting proposals to do so this month.

In a recent interview with the Town Crier, Simitian said he is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the reviews, which the board will ultimately consult to decide the district’s fate.

“It’s important for people to remember that on any given day, three members of the Board of Supervisors have the authority to consolidate the districts, and the best way to make sure that doesn’t happen is by making sure the (Los Altos Hills County Fire District) continues to operate efficiently, effectively and by the book, which they are doing – absolutely, positively,” he said.

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