Two incumbents in the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District who pride themselves on steady leadership and a good working relationship with the firefighters union face a challenger who proposes enlisting volunteers in a firefighter apprenticeship program modeled on the building trades unions.

The incumbents, Beth Bartke and John Mills, have been on the board since 2006 and 2009, respectively. Janet Callaghan, a former John Swett Unified School Distric board member, said in a recent interview with this newspaper that she championed relocation of the district's elementary school from its previous spot on the Phillips 66 refinery periphery, and creation of the vocational career academy at John Swett High School in the past decade.

She said she is troubled by the recent closing of the Rodeo fire station, given the town's proximity to the refinery; the Hercules station remains open.

Bartke and Mills are Hercules residents; Callaghan lives in Rodeo. Currently, four of five board members are Hercules residents.

The district's finances took a turn for the worse in 2008-2009, with annual deficits and dips into reserves, as the local and national economies plummeted and the board took some costly actions. In late June 2009, then-Fire Chief Gary Boyles retired under pressure from a board majority and the firefighters union, Local 1230.


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Boyles had angered the union by advocating a fitness test as a prerequisite to sending firefighters on out-of-area wildland fire strike teams, a cherished source of overtime; and he wanted to send along a reserve firefighter as a fourth strike team member to gain experience.

The board agreed to pay Boyles a year's salary over two years and promoted Battalion Chief Alan Biagi to chief, with a $29,000 raise. Biagi retired a year later with a spike to his pension.

Later in 2009, the board, again under union pressure, tried to oust its own member Bill Prather, a Boyles supporter, ostensibly over an off-the-cuff remark that questioned the ability of short women to be firefighters. Prather apologized, but the rest of the board nevertheless tried to oust him. In the end, Prather sued the district and won. He received an apology from the board in 2011.

After four years of deficits, this fiscal year's $4.9 million district budget is balanced. The district employs 11 firefighters plus a chief, battalion chief and administrative services officer, down from a paid staff of 21 four years ago; there are eight reserve firefighters. The Rodeo station is shuttered.

Chief Charles Hanley, who also serves as Pinole's fire chief, said the district's strapped finances are partly the result of state-mandated diversions to education and, until recently, revenue losses to the now-defunct Hercules Redevelopment Agency.

Bartke said a hoped-for award of a federal SAFER grant would help the district financially for a few years, but she acknowledged that long-term solutions are needed.

Mills took some credit for stabilizing the district's finances, acquiring state-of-the art equipment and developing a five-year strategic plan.

Neither incumbent wanted to talk about the Prather and Boyles fiascos, preferring to look toward the future.

Callaghan said the district should strengthen ties with the volunteer Crockett-Carquinez Fire District to the immediate north, and cited the San Ramon Valley Fire District as one that successfully supplements paid personnel with volunteers. She wants to see a paradigm shift in attitude toward volunteers and reserves that would view them as apprentices in the tradition of union apprenticeship.

Noting the preponderance of medical calls and the small percentage of fire-related calls -- just 6.7 percent in 2011, according to the district's annual report -- Callaghan said she would favor exploring the use of two-person vehicles for many medical responses, which constituted 62.3 percent of the incidents last year, as an alternative to three- or four-person firefighting vehicles.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at twitter.com/tomlochner


MEET THE CANDIDATES
Here are biographical details for the three candidates running for the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District board in the Nov. 6 election. Details were gathered mostly from news sources and candidates.

Name: Beth Bartke
Age: 63
Place of residence: Hercules
Occupation: Administrative secretary for Pinole Police Department
Political and civic experience: Incumbent, appointed to fire district board in 2006 and elected in 2008; served one term on the Hercules City Council, 1992-1996, including a one-year rotation as mayor. Has served on the fire district's Community Advisory Panel; Hercules Land Use Panel: Pinole Hercules Soccer League board; and on the board of the Rape Crisis Center of Contra Costa and Marin County and as director of administration for the successor organization, Community Violence Solutions.

Name: Janet Callaghan
Age: 59
Place of residence: Rodeo
Occupation: Pediatric medical assistant
Political and civic experience: Served three terms on the John Swett Unified School District governing board, 1994-2006; served with the civic group Rodeo Citizens Association and the Contra Costa County General Plan Congress in the 1990s; current member of Crockett-Rodeo Community Working Group that monitors pollution around the fence line of the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo; also serves on Pinole/Hercules/East Bay Regional Park District Joint Powers Authority.

Name: John Mills
Age: 65
Place of residence: Hercules
Occupation: Retired speech and language specialist.
Political and civic experience: Incumbent, appointed in late 2008 and sworn in January 2009; serves on Hercules Library Commission. Also has served on Hercules Library Foundation board; Hercules Community Services and Library Commission; Friends of the Hercules Library; Christmas Coalition; school safety committees; and in a military rehabilitation hospital.
Website: http://telesisjournals.com/fire/