PINOLE -- In a startling move that underscored the growing tension between the city and its firefighters, the City Council on Tuesday turned down a $1.24 million federal grant to reopen a shuttered fire station for two years amid a war of words between the mayor and head of the firefighters union.
The council cited concerns over incurring associated costs with reopening the Pinole Valley station, along with a pending unfair labor practices complaint by the firefighters union, in rejecting the grant it had agreed to accept earlier this year.
The 4-1 decision, with Councilman Phil Green dissenting, followed a stark display of tension between Pinole and Firefighters Local 1230, highlighted when Mayor Debbie Long chastised union President Vince Wells for a recent post on this newspaper's website in which he blasted the council's leadership and its rejection of a contract with either of two neighboring fire districts. Wells later walked out of the council chamber with Pinole fire Capt. Rich Voisey after Long refused to engage in a dialogue with Wells as he sought to respond to her accusation, "It is you ... Vince, who has put a cloud over this city."
In his website post, Wells also accused the council of mismanagement and lack of attention to infrastructure and fire apparatus, and cited low morale among Pinole firefighters.
Long was particularly incensed by the post's closing comment, in which Wells, referencing the defection of three Pinole firefighters to the neighboring Rodeo-Hercules Fire District, wrote: "Congratulations to the firefighters who were able to get off this 'sinking ship.'"
Long said, "I want to tell ... everyone in the community that our ship is not sinking."
The two agencies have shared a fire chief since early 2011 in Charles Hanley, whose contract with Pinole runs through the end of June. Wells also decried Pinole's "disrespectful dissolution of (Hanley's) contract" in the post.
Long said she was "tired of people hiding behind the words of a blog," and that to say the Pinole Fire Department's ship is sinking is "wrong, misleading and irresponsible."
Long refused to allow Wells to respond to her remarks, contending that he had gotten his turn to speak earlier in the discussion of the grant. But in a telephone interview with this newspaper later Tuesday night, Wells said he should have been allowed to speak because "the mayor brought up a whole bunch of things that weren't on the agenda."
"She made reference to things that I wrote," Wells said, "but I never had the opportunity to respond; I could have gone toe-to-toe with her.
"She used her position as mayor to control the microphone and express her side without giving me the opportunity to give my side," Wells continued. "In my entire career, I have never seen anybody abuse her position as mayor as she did."
The federal SAFER grant -- the initials stand for "Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response" -- was to be spread over two years, and was supposed to reopen Pinole Valley station 74, one of two fire stations in the city. It would have obligated Pinole, one of only three cities in Contra Costa County with a municipal fire department, to hire four new firefighters and renounce any staff reductions during the term of the grant.
The city had formally accepted the grant in January but never drew on it, and so had not implemented it, City Manager Belinda Espinosa said earlier this month.
City officials calculated that running two fire stations, even with the help of the grant, would cost Pinole $400,000 a year more than keeping only the downtown station open, without the grant. But the council majority said the deciding factor in the vote to forgo the grant was the union's pending, two-count, unfair labor practices complaint before the California Public Employment Relations Board, which they fear could be onerous for the city for years to come in the event the union prevails.
But Wells said the city really did not want the grant.
"PERB gives them their cover to pass on the grant," he said.
One aspect of the PERB complaint deals with employee contributions to retirement; the other, according to the city, is related to overtime pay it says the union believes it was denied when the Pinole Valley station was browned out. But Wells said it is about getting the city to implement staffing provisions in the labor contract, and that overtime pay is only one of several possible remedies to what he characterized as unilateral actions by the city in violation of bargaining rules.
Wells predicted Pinole's renunciation of the SAFER grant would not sit well with its partner agencies in Battalion 7, a three-agency consortium consisting of Pinole, Rodeo-Hercules and the Contra Costa Fire District's El Sobrante and San Pablo stations; all three agencies' firefighters belong to Local 1230. Wells noted that the county fire district recently floated a parcel tax measure, albeit an unsuccessful one, and that Rodeo-Hercules is contemplating some kind of revenue measure as well. By contrast, he said, "Pinole had a grant and turned it down."
Wells said he stands by his "sinking ship" website remark.
"They're in jeopardy," he said of Pinole, predicting that Rodeo-Hercules and the county fire district might no longer want to provide automatic aid to Pinole in view of its rejection of an opportunity to contribute more to Battalion 7. Under automatic aid, the nearest units, as determined by computer, respond to an emergency automatically; under mutual aid, one agency must first make a request to another to receive aid.