El Dorado Hills Fire Board race heats upBy: Art Garcia, Telegraph Correspondent
The public debate about the local fire department over allegations of high salaries and pensions for fire fighters has drawn enough heat for a three-alarm fire.
Three candidates are challenging two incumbents for a pair of four-year terms on the El Dorado Hills Fire District Board in the general election on Nov. 6. The embattled department has 65 employees, 58 of them “boots on the ground.”
One incumbent, Charles “Jim” Hartley, is a retired assistant fire chief and candidate John Peterson is a retired fireman. Hartley, and fellow board member incumbent John Hidahl, have done some joint campaign promotions.
The other two candidates for the board are husband and wife Craig and Sherry Petersen. All indicated a primary reason they are running for a board position is to give back to the community.
Hartley, 63, is wrapping up his 12th year on the fire board. He’s a retired assistant fire chief with 32 years with the Sacramento Metro Fire Department, plus five years as a fireman volunteer in West Sacramento.
He and his wife, Lynne, have lived in El Dorado Hills 33 years. Hartley has an associate of arts degree in fire management from American River Community College, a teaching credential and “a bunch” of certificates.
While serving on the board, his “number one priority” has been the budget. “We’ve gone through a pretty heavy hit with the recession since 2008 and we’ve been able to weather that storm and provide balanced budgets for four years,” he said.
Continuing to manage a balanced budget will remain his first priority if re-elected. Hartley disputes an El Dorado County Grand Jury report that slammed the fire department for excessive spending for salaries, pensions and equipment.
“We did respond to the jury’s criticisms very effectively,” he said. “We have a balanced budget, a healthy reserve, great facilities and apparatus and they’re all paid for. We have no debt, no bonds. I think we’re in better fiscal shape than 99 percent of the public agencies in the country.”
Hidahl is 61 and has lived in El Dorado Hills 34 years. He’s been on the fire board more than 28 years and currently is finishing up a one-year term as its president. There was a two-year period when he was not re-elected.
He lives with his wife, Eileen, and is employed as a program director within Mission Assurance, a part of aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, at McClellan Business Park. Hidahl has a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and has taken classes for a master’s degree in business administration at California State University, Sacramento.
He said he’s running for another term “to continue the evolution of the fire department. We’re going through a lot of transition with the current economic situation.
“We’ve had to do some down-sizing of the organization, fortunately without any layoffs. We offered some enhanced retirement benefits to employees who took advantage of them,” said Hidahl.
“Going forward, there’s going to be an ongoing need to continue that transition. We will be continually looking at and reassessing what changes need to occur to make sure the organization is right-sized, that we live within our budget,” he said.
Peterson, 51, who moved with his wife to El Dorado Hills four years ago from Seattle, is making his first run for elective office. A former fireman for nine years in Redwood City, he left that department on disability and now is retired.
He worked for a number of companies in business development, his last in charge of sales for Cardinal Health, which has annual sales of more than $100 billion and is ranked No. 19 on Fortune magazine’s list of the nation’s 500 largest corporations. Peterson has a degree in medical technology from the University of Washington.
“In El Dorado Hills, unlike most cities and towns where the fire department, especially the budget, is overseen by a mayor, a city council and a city manager, here the department is overseen only by a fire board,” he said.
“I did more research and found the board had primarily a couple of old, retired fire chiefs or fire captains or other fire department personnel,” said Peterson.
“The department just needs a little tighter management and it will be fine,” he continued. “I believe that with my fire department and business background I could be of real value to our community.”
Peterson considers present fire department salaries excessive. “Any fire fighter, if he works it right, can pretty easily get to making $200,000 a year. I don’t think that’s good for the community, especially when that’s triple what we pay our teachers.” he said.
Peterson “absolutely” agrees with the county grand jury report that labeled the fire department “fiscally irresponsible.” The department was “clearly overstaffed, suffering from runaway overtime and abused the system. I was troubled the department would not take ownership of any of its mistakes,” he said.
Craig and Sherry Petersen have lived in El Dorado Hills 29 years. He has a degree in and has completed post-graduate work in science and nutrition at the University of California, Davis. She has a degree in economics and science, with a major in molecular biology. Craig Petersen is 59.
“We’re not anti-firemen in any degree,” he declared. “But everything done by the board is by majority vote and in the two years we’ve attended fire board meetings it’s almost ‘yes’ on everything, with very few questions asked by the board members on why or could this be done more efficiently.” Petersen said a small number of citizens have asked “the most compelling questions.”
If they’re elected, the Petersens hope they can encourage board members “to be more responsive,” he said. “If we can’t convince them, they can continue to vote ‘yes’ on most everything and there will be no change.
“The department has big future liabilities already and by simple math, you can see the course isn’t going to change if we don’t rudder it in a different direction,” he said. Petersen agrees with the grand jury report’s assertion the department has been fiscally irresponsible.
He also noted the jury report pointed out that 90 percent of the department’s emergency calls are for medical needs and only 5 percent are fire calls “and yet the department is run very heavily towards fire suppression.
“We have 12 large fire-fighting vehicles and one ambulance,” said Petersen. “That 12-to-1 ratio is completely opposite the ratio of emergency responses. We’d like to see more emphasis given to medical aspects.
“We’re not looking for radical change. We’re just looking for alternative ways to run the fire department.”
Sherry Petersen did not respond to calls requesting an interview.