The Cambria Community Services District is doing the right thing in taking public input on whether to maintain a stand-alone fire department or seek to contract with Cal Fire on a more permanent basis.
Why did it take so long?
Now-retired Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller submitted a form March 3 indicating his intention to step down — seven months before his Oct. 1 retirement date and 4½ months before his last day on the job (July 17), when accrued leave/vacation time was taken into account. But he’d spoken publicly of his intention to retire more than once prior to this, giving the district plenty of time to have a replacement ready upon his departure.
“To the best of my knowledge,” former chief Bill Knoop said at a fire-protection workshop Thursday, Sept. 3, in the Veterans Memorial Building, “he informed the board two years prior to his retirement.”
Even if the district didn’t feel it appropriate to begin a formal hiring process until Miller had specifically nailed down his last day on the job, that shouldn’t have kept the district from deciding, then and there, how the process should play out once that occurred. Explore Cal Fire? Hire an interim chief? Promote from within?
Choosing the mechanism at that point certainly wasn’t beyond the district’s ability, and it would have given the community a chance to have input before the interim Cal Fire contract was signed.
Instead, the process remained in limbo. It only seemed to get rolling once the district had decided not to promote a new chief from within and instead to enter into a one-year agreement with Cal Fire to provide fire services.
Granted, the district was in the midst of a time- and labor-intensive process involving the emergency water-supply project. Moreover, it’s not a simple matter to fill a position as important as fire chief, but that doesn’t explain why the process couldn’t have been started.
Even before Miller announced his retirement, the district could have begun the process it’s now engaged in: of determining the best course of action to take once Miller did, in fact, retire.
In the 4½ months between Miller’s March 3 announcement and his retirement, there would have even been time for an executive search: CCSD General Manager Jerry Gruber said in June that such a search can be performed in “as little as three or four months.”
Alternatively, as Knoop suggested in public comments Thursday, a Cambria Fire captain could have been appointed interim chief to ensure the decision wasn’t rushed.
But ultimately, the district chose instead to wait and enter into a one-year contract with Cal Fire. The 4-1 vote, taken June 25, came three months after a grand jury report recommended that Cal Fire make a presentation about providing fire-suppression service to Cambria.
The decision has led to, as audience member Stephen Overturf said Thursday night, a problem of perception.
Before Thursday’s meeting started, one audience member was overheard saying he believed it likely that a decision had already made to contract with Cal Fire on a permanent basis — this despite repeated declarations by directors Muril Clift and Michael Thompson that such was most assuredly not the case. Their assurances aside, that’s the perception.
And as Overturf said, “perceptions matter.”
This is especially true in a period of extreme drought and high fire danger, which Cambria presently faces. Earlier Thursday, Rep. Lois Capps visited the community and was told that it was at risk for a fast-moving, catastrophic blaze.
That’s enough to make anyone anxious.
Amid such anxiety, continuity is important. It’s not that people don’t respect Cal Fire’s firefighting
ability. Since its interim contract took effect, a handful of fires have broken out in the area, and each was extinguished quickly without structures — or lives — being endangered.
Even so, there are concerns that Cal Fire crews may not be as knowledgeable about navigating Cambria’s labyrinthine, sometimes less-than-paved roads.
Further, some residents have argued that paramedics on Cambria Fire vehicles are better qualified to respond to medical emergencies than Cal Fire EMTs — and that they get there sooner. (And the majority of fire-service calls in Cambria are for medical situations.)
These appear to be valid concerns, and they’re backed by a strong public sentiment. Six audience members spoke when the vote was taken on the Cal Fire contract in June — all of them opposing the deal. By the time last week’s fire workshop rolled around, the opposition had grown in number and had clad itself in red shirts emblazoned with the message “Keep Cambria Fire Local.”
As mentioned, directors have been adamant that no decision has been made on a permanent contract — with Clift stating at the first fire-protection workshop, “I guarantee you it is not a done deal.”
But why are such reassurances needed?
In fact, they may have been rendered necessary largely by the district’s decision to sign a temporary contract with Cal Fire
before soliciting public feedback. It’s inevitable that some members of the public will see this as a “foot in the door” toward a permanent contract.
And the appearance of bias can be almost as troublesome as actual bias.
Again, it’s all about perception.
Involving residents in decision-making at the outset would have mitigated against that perception. No matter how well Cal Fire has done its job, people are likely to be less trustful of a decision already made (even on an interim basis) than of one in which they have a voice from the get-go.
It’s likely to raise suspicions, justified or not, that they’re being nudged in one direction or another, and that — the choice having been made on an interim basis — a permanent decision can’t be far behind.
Cal Fire may or may not ultimately prove to be the right choice for Cambria, but the vast majority of residents who have spoken out on the issue, including some former fire chiefs, think otherwise and, understandably, want their voices to be heard.
The CCSD is listening to those voices now. But it would have been nice if they had been part of the discussion from the outset. If a grand jury is worth listening to before even a temporary decision is made, so are Cambria residents.