HALF MOON BAY -- A six-year battle over Cal Fire's contract to provide fire services for 30,000 people on the San Mateo County coast has culminated in a bitterly disputed election to recall three members of the local fire board.
The recall campaign against a majority of the Coastside Fire Protection District Board of Directors features many of the hallmarks of small-town politics -- personal animosity, sign-stealing and charges of cronyism -- but it's also grown into something more: a big-money union turf war.
With just a few days until ballots are counted Tuesday, rival firefighters unions are flooding the Half Moon Bay region with mailers and advertisements in favor of board members Mike Alifano, Douglas Mackintosh and Gary Riddell as well as three of the challengers trying to take their seats. The election will determine whether the district renews its contract with Cal Fire or begins a new stand-alone department July 1.
Some voters have found the propaganda blitz disorienting. Bruce Scholey, of Half Moon Bay, signed the petition that triggered the recall but now plans to vote against it.
"You've got two unions battling over who can be more overpaid," Scholey said. "We're going to have to hold our nose and vote for one of them."
The San Mateo County Firefighters Local 2400 has tried to get rid of Cal Fire since 2007, when the Half Moon Bay and Point Montara fire districts consolidated to become the Coastside Fire Protection District and voted to sign a contract with the state agency. A lawsuit bankrolled by the Local 2400 delayed Cal Fire's arrival until 2008.
The district was in shambles before Cal Fire took over. A memo from the interim fire chief in 2006 and a follow-up report from the San Mateo County civil grand jury described widespread dysfunction: sky-high employee turnover, staffing shortages, low morale and costly lawsuits.
Cal Fire turned the situation around in just a few years. That was the assessment of a 2011 report by TriData, an emergency services consultant, and a 2012 analysis by the civil grand jury, both of which recommended that the district renew its Cal Fire contract.
But a majority of the board of directors felt otherwise. Alifano, Mackintosh and Riddell voted in late 2011 to explore returning to a stand-alone department.
The three board members argue that Cal Fire has not lived up to its contract, failing to provide adequate training and fire prevention services, among other complaints. The transfer of a part-time fire marshal in 2011, for instance, caused the position to go unfilled, leading to mistakes and inspection delays.
The board members claim the agency, being part of a state bureaucracy, is unresponsive to local needs. They say former Chief John Ferreira, who retired in December, was evasive and uncooperative -- a charge Ferreira disputes.
"There is no accountability to the board," said Mackintosh, summing up several years of frustration. "Every improvement was a major fight."
The recall campaign was launched in 2012 by a small group of citizens who felt Cal Fire was being treated unfairly. Four candidates signed up to run against the incumbents: Karen K. Anderson, J.B. Cockrell, Lee McKusick and Harvey Rarback.
Cockrell, who served on the district board from 2007 to 2009, says the board majority hasn't provided sufficient justification for pushing out Cal Fire, whose contract, projected at roughly $5.8 million for the current fiscal year, is cheaper than running a stand-alone department.
"They wish to get rid of a system that is working quite well," said Cockrell, 71. "They're trying to manufacture issues that don't exist."
A cheaper model
The TriData report estimated that Cal Fire saved the district about $1.7 million in fiscal year 2010-11, though the board majority has criticized that figure as inflated. Whatever the exact number, Cal Fire provides savings by sharing management and other personnel, paying its firefighters less than their counterparts at the old stand-alone department and having firefighters work longer shifts which allows fewer people to man the same number of fire stations.
Cockrell says other unions that have negotiated higher salaries may see Cal Fire's model as a threat. The anti-recall campaign has received at least $15,000 from the Local 2400, which represents firefighters at about a dozen Peninsula departments, and $17,000 from firefighters unions elsewhere in the Bay Area.
The union representing Cal Fire firefighters has opened up its own wallet in response. As of March 29 it had spent at least $29,000 in support of Anderson, Cockrell and Rarback, who are running as a slate.
Anderson and other recall proponents suggest that Alifano, Mackintosh and Riddell are beholden to the Local 2400 and Coastside firefighters who preferred the old system. They point, for example, to the fact that Mackintosh was a plaintiff in the 2007 suit challenging the Cal Fire contract.
But Mackintosh and the others say they are simply doing their jobs -- namely, making sure Cal Fire meets its contractual obligations.
Riddell gave a simple summation.
"We're holding Cal Fire accountable," he said. "That's what's going on."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.