Move to Cut the Size of Fire Authority Board Remains a Hot Topic

A parochial drive in the Legislature to downsize the Orange County Fire Authority’s board is attracting statewide concern from powerful forces that are fearful of losing local control of agencies for vital services.

In February, Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim/Santa Ana) introduced AB1217, a bill that would reduce the board from 25 to 13 members effective Jan. 1, 2017.

The measure was initiated by the Orange County Professional Firefighter’s Association, which sees the reduction as a way to bring new order to the governing body, which historically has experienced chaotic governance.

But elected officials from the 23 cities served by the Fire Authority saw such a dramatic reduction of board members as disenfranchisement, cutting municipal voices on vital services. On April 22, the board voted 19-2 against the legislation, with only Santa Ana and Irvine opposed to the stance; the county representatives abstained.

Al Murray, a Tustin City Councilman who was Fire Authority board chairman for the last year, said the bill is a purported remedy for a problem that doesn’t exist.

“The board has gone through a lot of changes, and we’ve fixed a number of issues,” said Murray. “Why make board changes when they aren’t needed?”

But such sentiments haven’t deterred Joe Kerr, a firefighters union spokesman, who said he has been in discussions in recent weeks with key state legislators to advance the bill.

At the same time, Fire Authority individual municipal members have taken votes that cumulatively eliminated alternates for those who typically serve on the board [designated city council members].

The union sees informing or lobbying 25 board members — along with their alternates — as logistically problematic. In the spring, keeping the alternates was a must for most municipalities, where appointments can be considered political plums.

Privately, a board member referred to the elimination of alternates as “a strategic move to get rid of one union argument seen as nonsense.”

But afterwards Kerr said he understood key legislators are watching the Fire Authority, adding “removing the alternates…was not going to be enough.”

The Fire Authority board change is so sensitive that Chief Jeffrey Bowman declined to be interviewed on that topic, or any issue at this time. A spokesman said Bowman officially is “neutral” on the bill.

Tensions have been such over the bill that sources say Kerr reportedly told Bowman to get on board and support the legislation, or he would be forced out.

Bowman hasn’t even completed his first year as chief. The prior chief, Keith Richter, was forced out last Aug. 31, after months of turmoil, including a rarely issued no confidence vote from the union.

Kerr denied threatening Bowman, saying: “The chief is doing a great job, telling the truth, and following the law with great skill.”

Statewide Concern

Regardless of local posturing, the legislation is facing heavyweight opposition statewide, with more possibly on the horizon.

For instance, Fire Authority officials learned of concern by joint powers agencies involved in major developments — like Santa Clara, where its agency financed the $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium for the NFL 49ers. Opened last year, the venue will host Super Bowl 50 in February.

Sheila Tucker, Santa Clara’s assistant city manager, said the city hasn’t yet expressed an opinion to the Legislature about the Fire Authority bill, but it will be taking “a closer look” in the future to “see if there is concern.”

Santa Clara so far has overcome legal and political challenges to the stadium, but with some economists estimating the municipality could be exposed to a $100 million shortfall in coming years there is fear of a backlash via legislative action.

Already, powerful Sacramento groups, like the California Association of Joint Powers Authorities and the California League of Cities, are condemning the bill.

““The bill is not only offensive, it is a bad legal precedent,” said Tim Cromartie, the League of Cities legislative representative. “The bill strikes at local control. Resorting to state legislation on such a matter is way out of bounds — beyond the pale.”

And joint powers authority association representative Julianne Broyles wrote the bill: “Is an unwarranted and unprecedented state intrusion in local governance — attempting to mandate who is permitted to serve on a local board.”

Beyond the contents of the bill, local officials like Murray are upset that Daly and the firefighters union launched the measure without consulting the Fire Authority board.

“I said to the union, “’why did you do it this way?’” Murray said. “They fell on their sword,” apologizing. Daly and his aides wouldn’t be interviewed.

In a July 2 press release, Daly said his legislation is designed “to reform” the Fire Authority board while “preserving [its] regional integrity and oversight mission.”

A Complex Proposal

Since it’s creation about 20 years ago to serve about 1.7 million Orange County residents, the Fire Authority board has allowed one seat for each of its 23 cities and two seats for Orange County, which are filled by supervisors.

When the bill moved in June to the state Senate, proposed terms for selecting a Fire Authority board with 13 members were changed in the Committee on Governance and Finance.

The complex proposal for allotting board seats now calls for 10 seats for the cities and at least two seats for the county. The bill’s language is so convoluted that Fire Authority officials say they haven’t entirely figured out how it would be applied.

But Murray said the plan would ensure a seat for Santa Ana, as the most populous city in the Fire Authority’s region.

This is seen as ironic because Santa Ana is a newcomer to the Fire Authority — joining in early 2012 after it dissolved its 128-year-old fire department in the midst of a financial crisis.

After the bill was introduced, Murray said, the Fire Authority learned Santa Ana had plotted for it behind the scenes.

“We were politically blind-sided — with a big old sledge hammer,” said Murray. “I talked to [Santa Ana Mayor Miquel] Pulido about it. I told him: ‘We came to your city’s rescue; and this is the reaction?’ It certainly left a sour taste in my mouth.’’

The trail of finance and political support for local and state officials provides some rational to these moves.

The firefighters union is one of Daly’s largest supporters, providing $12,200 last year, with the same amount reported in 2012, records show.

In his July press release, Daly wrote he was putting the measure “on hold,” withdrawing “it from further action until next year,” in January.

But there are suggestions the bill could move forward this year, given its close scrutiny by Sen. Robert M. Hertzberg, a Democrat from the west San Fernando Valley who chairs the Committee on Governance and Finance.

In a July 23 email, Kerr said Hertzberg would be inquiring in early August “to see if the OCFA is willing to make reforms itself.” Hertzberg couldn’t be reached for comment.

But an aide said the Senate Committee on Rules could take a procedural vote to allow action on the Daly bill this year.

In Sacramento, the sudden reappearance of a bill on the Legislature’s docket in the waning weeks or days of the session is a regularly observed phenomenon.

Jeff Lalloway, an Irvine City Councilman who serves on the Fire Authority board, said he has long felt the board was “too big; but the Daly bill doesn’t solve anything.”

With its current members working efficiently, Lalloway said the city hired an extra lobbyist at $5,000 a month for the issue.

Privately, one official described a form of stalemate — where the small cities want to retain board representation, while the bigger power forces are jousting at a higher level.

“I don’t know how this is going to play out,” Lalloway said.

Please contact Rex Dalton directly at rexdalton@aol.com