MOFD Forum Focuses on a Number of Hot Button Issues

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ANIL COMELO
Fielding questions from community members and the League of Women voters, MOFD candidates (L-R) Lucy Talbot, Michael Donner, Steven Michael Danziger, Red Smith and incumbent Stephen Anderson had the opportunity to share their platforms at the public forum on Oct. 6.

    In preparation for the Nov. 6 election, five candidates for the Moraga Orinda Fire District (MOFD) Board of Directors for the two division seats up for contention among Orinda voters (Divisions 3 and 4) gathered in the Orinda Library Auditorium Oct. 10 to respond to questions. The forum, sponsored by The Orinda Association and facilitated by the League of Women Voters, drew approximately 75 attendees, including a number of firefighters.
    The wisdom of the just ratified Memorandum of Understanding (MOU that runs from July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2021) negotiated by the board with the firefighter’s union, the morale of district rank and file fire personnel as it pertains to recruitment and retention, and the backers of various candidates elicited the most fireworks during a very civil hour and a half process that found all candidates responding to the same questions posed by the moderator.
    Questions, posed by the League moderator Ann Flynn, focused upon a number of issues. Fittingly, on the one-year anniversary of the Tubbs Fire in the North Bay, firestorm danger, planning and response drew much attention. Other hot-button topics included fire prevention, budgets, approaches to unfunded pension responsibilities, adequacy of water systems, adequacy of communication systems and interaction with other fire departments and utilities. League members Marian Shostrom and Kathleen Kirk helped Flynn gather and sort questions.
    Although many questions came from the audience, the League itself formulated a few, including an inquiry about the identity of each candidate’s three main financial supporters. Lucy Talbot and Red Smith cited family or friends while Michael Donner and Steven Danziger cited unions or firefighter associations at the top of their lists. This elicited a reference by candidate Smith to the “Union slate,” which he named as Donner, Danziger and Greg Baitx, a candidate for the board from a different division. Anderson whimsically answered the question as to his top three financial donors as “the Bank of Stephen Anderson, the Bank of Stephen Anderson and the Bank of Stephen Anderson.”
    The two opponents for the Division Four Board position (Lucy Talbot and Michael Donner) distinguished themselves with differing points-of-view, backgrounds and basis for decision-making.
    Lucy Talbot, a small business owner after a 15-year career with Motorola, billed herself as “running as an independent candidate who wants to represent the community’s needs and not to serve any special interest group.” Talbot emphasized three areas: prevention, the use of technology to improve response times, and reducing the unfunded pension and liability, which she termed “the elephant in the room.”
    Talbot, who boasted over 30 years of community involvement, sees fire danger as “a serious reality in our beautiful Orinda” with its “Wildland Urban Interface and Severe Fire Hazard Zone.” Scoffing at the amount now budgeted for prevention, Talbot opined, “I am committed to focusing on prevention programs, funded by MOFD’s budget and utilizing best practices of Bay Area communities that mirror our own high fire danger profile.”
    Michael Donner, backed by friends, neighbors, Local 1230, other firefighter unions and various fire personnel, stressed his years of service with the Oakland Fire Department: “I realized how my 31-year career with the Oakland Fire Department and my volunteer experience in emergency preparedness could be valuable to our community.” Donner would “recommend an increase in fire prevention staffing and an increase to the fire prevention budget.”
    Donner noted that he has presented in both communities of Moraga and Orinda how to prepare for disaster. He claims to have “a passion for emergency preparedness.” This stems in part, he says, from his personal experience in major incidents such as the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland Hills Firestorm. Donner terms the current MOFD staff as “limited based on budget and staffing constraints” and calls for an increase: He says that the National Fire Protection Agency recommends a minimum of five fire district personnel for a fire district the size of MOFD, but “there is currently [only] a fire marshal, a part-time fire inspector and three part-time district aides.”
    Both Talbot and Donner live in Orinda, Talbot for 35 years and Donner since 2005.
    The three gentlemen vying for the Division Three Board position included the incumbent, Stephen Anderson, a six-year board veteran; Red Smith, who had a 35-year career with Pac Bell and then spent over two decades as a technology executive in the Silicon Valley; and Steven Danziger, a 20-year administrative manager with the Oakland Fire Department who was “motivated to run because there is a need for change on the board . . . [since] no board member had experience in the fire service.”
    Anderson, who spoke of the necessity of “coordination among agencies,” frequently clarified points as befitting somebody who is a veteran board member who has paid attention to details. He, for example, corrected the moderator in the beginning when she referenced candidates for the third and fourth district rather than division. In that vein, he also noted that “as we speak” there are monitors in problematic areas to provide early fire warning and that “there are some holes in the communication system like Rocky Point which was vandalized three years ago.”
    Anderson, much more specific than other candidates about the budget and contracted health care and retirement figures, also clarified that it was the police department rather than the fire department in charge of providing evacuation plans. He claimed that he always considers three questions, all of which he would need to answer affirmatively, in making board decisions: “Does it aid the mission to save lives? Will it help MOFD personnel do their jobs? Will it be fiscally sustainable?”
    Danziger, backed by Local 1230 and a number of present and retired Fire Chiefs and Deputy Chiefs, including Orinda resident Lance Calkin, the Albany Fire Chief, desires to “maintain and enhance fire safety/prevention, strengthen relationships with public agencies, promote fiscal responsibility and accountability, and be responsive to all.” Danziger, who has an MA in Public Administration, notes that the Board “can’t lose the main mission of the Department even while facing budgetary concerns.”
    He suggests using more aides and even student volunteers to help with preventive inspections and getting information to homeowners while talking up the CERT [Community Emergency Response Team) program. In discussing the need to be careful in changing long-time policy to send out both a fire truck and ambulance to non-fire calls, he noted that his own 95-year old father needed all the personnel that arrived on scene to get him down the hallway of his home and into an ambulance after an emergency call: “Two EMT professionals might not have been enough.”
    Smith, who stressed his community involvement and characterized himself as the “taxpayer’s representative,” joined Talbot in opening his remarks about the unfunded pension liability. He sees the board’s main task as managing the budget and letting the fire chief run the department. He talked about “best practices” and the use of technology, noting a UC Berkeley professor who was investigating ways to use algorithms to predict fires.
    In noting that there had “only been 12 fires all year in Moraga and Orinda with two home fires,” Smith suggested that budgets might be held down with minimum adverse impact. He also broached the subject of whether it was prudent to follow existing policy which always sends out a fire truck with an ambulance on an emergency call. Smith says that as a board member he will “help assess and balance the complex needs of our residents, our fire district personnel, and our annual budget to provide the best services possible in a financially prudent manner.”
    All three candidates live in Orinda, though the district also includes Canyon and a part of Moraga. All five candidates voiced strong support for Fire Chief Winnacker. As a current board member, Stephen Anderson voted for the just concluded MOU “when I was convinced that we had made a good start to manage health care benefits for retirees and address unfunded pension liability.” Donner and Danziger applauded the MOU, while Talbot and Smith expressed reservations or said they would have voted no. Anderson, backed on this point by Donner and Danziger, noted that “we don’t want to be a training ground for other fire departments who pay more.” He clarified that it costs over $10,000 to send a trainee to the academy for training.
    In speaking of firefighter morale, Donner and Danziger observed that Orinda attracted far fewer applicants, many of whom eliminated themselves in subsequent vetting, than other districts when posting for positions. When challenged that one couldn’t make comparisons with a district like Oakland, Danziger offered that comparable districts such as Ross and Piedmont pay better and, therefore, get more applicants. Besides what Talbot characterized as the “elephant in the room,” an unfunded pension that she said leaves each household in the district “on the hook for over $5,000,” the “other elephant in the room” was called out by Smith, who spoke of a recent development in which “all three non-union candidates had their houses inspected by fire personnel with one being cited for violations.” Public records indicate the aides acted beyond their purview and were let go from their jobs.
    Before the forum, Orinda residents spoke out about what they hoped to garner by listening to the candidates: Amy Berryhill said that she wanted to discern “who can help make our community resilient and keep us safe.” Wendy Bond echoed that sentiment: “I want to learn about their [the candidates’] background and experience and to know how that experience will contribute to the [MOFD] Board and community.” After the forum, attendee Bill Cahill noted the civility of the evening’s debate and called the experience “quite informative.” Another person gathered with a few candidates afterward during informal exchanges exclaimed that he would “like to see the five candidates [at the forum] all be on the board since together they represent important points-of-view.”
    The five candidates provided website information: For Division 3, candidate websites include Stephen Anderson (andersonmofd.com), Steven Danziger (stevedanzigerforMOFD.com) and Red Smith (VoteRedSmith.com). For Division 4, the candidate websites are Michael Donner (michaeldonner4mofd.com) and Lucy Talbot (LucyTalbot4MOFD.com).

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