By Mike Allen
January 29, 2017 (Spring Valley) -- An already combustible situation at the San Miguel Fire Protection District was made more divisive on January 25th, when three members of the board were served notice that a recall campaign is being mounted to oust them.
At the outset of the meeting, district resident Bob Cederdahl handed recall notices to President Theresa McKenna, as well as to Directors Jim Ek and Mike Vacio.
Those Directors, along with Kim Raddatz, voted that night to negotiate a contract for dispatching service with Heartland Communications Facility Authority (HCFA), which would be a change from the current dispatching arrangement with Cal Fire. The vote was 4-3 with Directors William Kiel, Jeff Nelson, and Dave Rickards opposed.
In July, the board voted to terminate Cal Fire as the district’s fire protection contractor and to return as a stand-alone district, hiring its own firefighters and other support personnel.
In an interview following the meeting, Cedardahl said the targeted board members are pushing the district to a stand-alone agency without doing an impartial study to determine if that move is financially sound.
“The fact is that we are being ramrodded into this change without getting all the figures and an independent study to see if this is financially viable,” Cedardahl said.
Patrick Walker, the deputy district director for Cal Fire Local 2881, said the recall petition was initiated by 10 citizens who reside in the district. Local 2881, the Cal Fire firefighters’ union, supports the recall effort. To qualify for the ballot, the initiative would have to collect a minimum of 9,906 signatures for each of the three petitions, or 15 percent of the total 66,040 registered voters in the district for each candidate up for recall, said County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu.
Walker said an estimate on a special election is about $600,000.
The fire district covers 47 square miles and includes Spring Valley, Casa de Oro, Grossmont/ Mount Helix, Rancho San Diego, Dehesa, Crest, Bostonia, and parts of unincorporated El Cajon.
In a prepared response, the three targeted directors said the basis for the recall “is simply not true” calling the arguments “intentionally false and misleading.”
“This recall is nothing more than a last-ditch effort by the State of California/ Cal Fire to keep control of this Fire District and the lucrative contract that goes with it,” the directors facing potential recall said.
Citing an in-house study done before the July vote on terminating San Miguel’s contract with Cal Fire, the district would save nearly $1.5 million in the first year by going with the stand-alone arrangement.
San Miguel voted to contract for fire protection from Cal Fire in 2012 after district revenue plummeted in the wake of a recession that severely damaged property values.
During the Jan.25 meeting, Ben Shepard, a San Miguel firefighter and resident, said the board was “going too fast, too quickly” to terminating its contracts with Cal Fire, and that there was never an objective study done to determine all the costs associated with going to a stand-alone status.
McKenna said that an objective analysis of San Miguel’s financials was conducted by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission in December, which stated that the agency had ended each fiscal year since 2008 with a surplus, which has contributed to a healthy reserve fund.
In the midst of all the rancor on the board are San Miguel’s firefighters, most of whom belong to Cal Fire. Their morale has been directly impacted because of the ongoing rift, but they continue to perform their jobs professionally, said Fire Chief Darrin Howell.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Howell said. “Obviously as a fire chief I’d like to see (morale) be better, but we realize it’s the parents who are fighting, not the children.”