Move to Make Fire Authority’s Board Smaller Sparks Debate

A proposed law to reduce the number of board members at the Orange County Fire Authority is being pushed by the agency’s main firefighters union, but also raising concerns that South County cities would have their representation unfairly reduced.

The Fire Authority serves 1.7 million of Orange County residents, and is currently governed by a 25-member board that includes two county supervisors and a representative from each of the agency’s 23 member cities.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) that is currently working its way through the state Legislature would cut the number of board members down to 13.

“We have too big a board and when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,” said Joe Kerr, a longtime leader with the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association.

Kerr pointed to turmoil in recent years at the agency, including a management audit that revealed poor morale and a series of management mistakes; such as charging businesses for hazardous materials inspections that were never performed.

Under the legislation, AB 1217, the number of county supervisors on the board would be bumped up to three, and there would be two city representatives from each of the county’s five supervisorial districts.

This would significantly increase the power of the supervisors on the board — the added supervisorial seat, plus the decrease in the overall size of the board means that supervisors would go from having 8 percent of the voting seats to 23 percent.

The union has support in its overall effort from county supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer, who described the board’s current size as “unwieldy” during last week’s supervisors meeting.

At the same time, both Spitzer and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett expressed concern that the bill would significantly reduce the representation of South County cities, which would go from having 40 percent of seats to 15 percent.

“Just having two representatives out of my 10 cities doesn’t give my cities adequate representation” on the board, Bartlett said.

Board member David Shawver has similar worries.

“The real fact of it is, it doesn’t really give equity among the cities that are stakeholders, the way it’s designed now,” said Shawver, a Stanton councilman who has served on the Fire Authority’s board since it was created in 1995.

Shawver also says the bill would disrupt the balance of power between so-called “contract cities” that pay for Fire Authority services from city coffers, versus “structural fire fund cities” who have a portion of their property taxes routed to the Fire Authority before they reach the city.

If contract cities are in charge, they may be tempted to push costs to structural fire fund cities, which have far less control over how much they pay into the fire system, Shawver said.

Kerr says Shawver brings up good points, and that the union is gathering input from cities about how to strike a better balance on the board.  Seats will likely be added to the proposal, he said.

“Now that the ink is on the paper, now everybody is weighing in, and we’re weighing their concerns” and will make recommendations to Daly, he added.

The bill, which Daly first introduced in February, is slated to go before the Assembly’s Committee on Local Government, though a hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled.

The Fire Authority’s member cities, meanwhile, are currently slated to discuss the bill at upcoming City Council meetings.

The cities’ positions would then be brought to the Fire Authority board’s executive committee and then the full board for a formal decision.

Shawver and Kerr did disagree on one major point: the need for changing the board’s size in the first place. Shawver said that following the turmoil of recent years, the board has asserted itself and is doing a great job of oversight.

“Right now the [Fire Authority] is running like a very fine oiled machine,” said Shawver. “I’m not sure if the bill is really necessary anymore.”

Kerr, however, says the idea of restructuring of the board is not only prudent, but came from board members themselves.

“The directors came to us – the firefighters didn’t go to them,” said Kerr.
“A citizen only has to look back at the last several years to understand the fundamental structural problems that’s wrong with the governance and oversight.”

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

  • David Zenger

    ” ‘Right now the [Fire Authority] is running like a very fine oiled machine,’ said Shawver.”

    From the guy that brought Stanton to it’s high level of municipal performance.

  • Steve W.

    Why not go all the way and convert OCFA to a fire district with the Supervisors as the five-member board?

    The South County contract cities are able to contract for police services from the county without the need for an Orange County Law Enforcement Authority.