Lakeside Fired Up Over Fire Board
Thursday, April 8, 2010
If you live in Lakeside, the possibility of a major fire is always on your mind, even in the rainy season. We'll discuss why troubles at the Lakeside Fire Board and a potential recall of 2 of its members could affect us all.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Politics in San Diego's East County might not get the coverage it deserves, but not because it's dull. There are enough deals, surprises and power plays to rival many big city political circles. Now it may also seem that what goes on in Lakeside or El Cajon doesn't really affect other areas of San Diego, but that's not quite true either. Joining us with just two recent big stories from the East County that have wide implications is my guest, Miriam Raftery, editor of Eastcountymagazine.org. Miriam Raftery, welcome to These Days.
MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, Eastcountymagazine.org): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Now, first of all, I’d like to know how did the East County get through Sunday’s 7.2 earthquake? Anything different than the rest of San Diego?
RAFTERY: Well, it definitely shook us up. We were a little closer to the epicenter out there than downtown San Diego was. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any major damage but there was minor damage, some broken windows in some storefronts and, you know, broken glass, some road buckling and a gas line that broke out at the Campo Indian Reservation. And some questions raised about, you know, some of the future major energy projects and things to go in out there from a seismic safety standpoint.
CAVANAUGH: Right, because some of – I know that some of the energy projects that we have are good for earthquakes up to 7.0 but this one was a 7.2.
RAFTERY: Well, exactly, and if you look at one of the major fault lines that runs through East County, the Elsinore fault, there are predictions it could have up to a 7.5 quake someday. And some of these things like the 500-foot tall wind turbines that some of which are already up and others, more of them proposed, turns out nobody’s really done seismic safety testing that I can find on windmills that are that tall. So what happens if we get a big quake? Are we going to have these massive things the size – with wingspans the size of a jet plane, could they topple?
CAVANAUGH: Good question. Well, we’ll – I’m glad we got through this one at least all right in the East County.
RAFTERY: Yes, that’s a very good – that’s a good sign, and I will say the wind farm out there is still standing…
RAFTERY: …and it was still operational, so it did come through.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s move on to the uproar centered around the Lakeside Fire Board. First of all, tell us why someone in, let’s say, Scripps Ranch or Del Mar should be interested in what’s going on in the Lakeside Fire Protection District?
RAFTERY: Well, two words, Cedar Fire. We all remember in 2003 the fire that started there and burned all the way into San Diego, and again in 2007, another major – other major fires that started in East County and actually evacuated half a million people in San Diego County, all the way to the coast in Solana Beach. So we should all be very concerned. And if the budget cuts out there are forcing tough decisions like, gee, do we cut fire prevention, the weed-cutting? Or do we cut fire-fighting, the number of firefighters, their pay, the number of fire engines, the number of stations open? You know, a lot of people would say the last thing we need is less fire protection out in East County.
CAVANAUGH: So basically what you’re saying is, in a sense, Lakeside is the first line of protection for the rest of San Diego in fires that start outside – in the East County. I’m wondering, therefore, what are these bad choices that the Lakeside board is now grappling with.
RAFTERY: Well, they’ve had tough choices. You know, with the budget cuts the state is taking back money from local fire districts. The County, although they’re trying to move toward a county fire department, the bottom line is there’s a lot less money coming into not just this fire district but many of the local fire districts. We’ve seen, elsewhere, brownouts, we’ve seen one less fire truck in operation in San Miguel. So in Lakeside what happened is the fire board decided on just 24-hours notice to fire a fairly popular fire chief, Mark Baker, and replace him with Chief Parr, Andy Parr.
CAVANAUGH: And do we know why, Miriam?
RAFTERY: Well, that’s the burning question, if you’ll pardon the pun. I think part of the problem out there is that the people who liked the previous chief felt that they were not given enough notice. This was done on 24-hours notice. The only reason given was we’ve lost confidence in the chief officially. And they said that legal counsel, you know, prohibited them from saying more. There are people who say, on one hand, oh, it’s a union thing. You know, the union guys that were elected don’t want, you know, they don’t want their pay cut, that he may have wanted to spend down the reserve rather than lay people off.
RAFTERY: And then on the other hand, you know, you have people that say that that’s not true and that there were, you know, that there were other issues. So it’s very hard to ascertain that but one thing we do know is that the prior chief was one of the strongest, outspoken people warning of the dangers of Sunrise Powerlink going through Lakeside. He stood up in meetings and said, look, we’re not going to be able to fight the fire under these lines with my guys, we’re not going to be able to get the planes in there to scoop up water out of the reservoir if these lines go in, more people are going to die. And Lakeside, of course, is where 14 people died in Wildcat Canyon in the Cedar Fire. The new fire chief, Chief Parr, for whatever reason, has taken no position on the Powerlink at all and did not show up, immediately after this thing, he did not show up at the meeting that SDG&E held for the public about fire link – Powerlink, when everyone was there voicing their concerns.
CAVANAUGH: So there are all these theories rolling around about why the Lakeside Fire Board decided to quickly fire the chief. There are now recall efforts against some of the members of the fire board, are there not, because of this firing?
RAFTERY: Yes, there are. Two of the board members are facing a recall election. It has qualified with the registrar and as of this Saturday a group called Lakeside First, a citizens group, is having a meeting out at the Lakeside Community Center at 9:00 a.m. where they’re going to go forth in the community and try to get the thousands of signatures that they need to put this on the ballot. And they’re recalling two of the board members. A third one, who also voted for the ouster, is not being recalled because he’s up for reelection anyway in November.
CAVANAUGH: And so will this recall election take place as part of the June primary?
RAFTERY: You know, I don’t know.
RAFTERY: I don’t know the exact date on that. I’m sorry. But I can find that out and I will let you know so you can post that on your site.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Would you say that there’s a general consensus in the East County about the Sunrise Powerlink or is opinion divided?
RAFTERY: Well, of course there’s opinions on both sides but the polls that we’ve done show overwhelming opposition to it. And there is a group called the East County Community Action Coalition which, in just a few months, has grown to 79,000 people opposed to the Powerlink, and that’s a pretty massive coalition. In my 25, almost 30, years as a journalist covering East County issues, there has never been an issue that’s generated this much opposition in the community for a variety of different reasons.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Miriam Raftery. She’s editor of Eastcountymagazine.org. And we are getting an East County update right now. We just talked about a sort of an upset on the Lakeside Fire Board and also a recall election that’s going to be taking place there. We are also going to be talking about something that we’ve heard a lot about over the years, the Grossmont Union High School District. And there is a resignation this time. Robert Collins, the superintendent of Grossmont Union High School District, is giving up that job. What is the story with Mr. Collins?
RAFTERY: Well, he’s been offered another job and he took it, with a company called CORE K12, CORE projects and technologies, and it’s an education products and services company. And so he’s going to work for them after the end of the school year. And he’s leaving at a very turbulent time. A lot of people really respected supervisor – this Supervisor Collins (sic). Under his leadership, test scores increased, a lot of the divisiveness that we saw in this district lessened. Teachers seemed to have, you know, in general great respect for him. He reduced truancy. And so now the million dollar question is who in the world is this board going to appoint? This is a board, of course, that’s been mired in controversy in the past.
CAVANAUGH: Remind us about that, Miriam. Tell – The Grossmont Union High School District has been through its ups and downs. Tell us about the controversial aspects of it.
RAFTERY: Well, sure. Right now it’s five Republicans on the board, four of which would – I think can safety be described as Christian rightwing. There’s a creationist on the board. We have a number of different people. Then we have Jim Kelly, the former board president, who appointed a prior superintendent that was very, very controversial, so controversial that, you know, that one of the other incumbents on the board – or, not incumbents, a board member who was voted off last time, Larry Urdahl, actually called Jim Kelly a clear and present danger to public education in a letter to the editor of the Union-Tribune. So it’s going to be very interesting to see who or what they come up with. Now that’s not to say that they always vote in lockstep and some good things have happened, you know, under this leadership, and then we have Priscilla Schreiber who has sometimes, you know, broken step with them even though she’s a Christian conservative as well. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that, you know, we’re all going to be seeing Darwinism not taught in the schools anymore but there certainly is a concern about what they may come up with given the makeup of the board and the fact that we have an election coming up. Three of the board members are up for reelection, including Robert Hoy, who’s basically the only moderate on the board right now. So…
CAVANAUGH: It is evolution – is that the major topic that they were wrestling with or were there other big issues that this divided board, in the past, could not come to grips with?
RAFTERY: Well, they’ve had teacher strikes in the past out there, budget issues, you know, you had – the teachers actually voted a vote of no confidence in not Supervisor Collins but Terry Ryan, the prior supervisor who, you know, die – resigned because he had a brain tumor and has since passed away. But he was extremely controversial. I can recall a story where a Jewish teacher wrote to him to complain about board meetings being scheduled on a High Holy Day and his response back was I will pray for you.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, my, not good.
RAFTERY: So, you know, we’ve – we have colorful politics. It’s never dull and it’s going to be very interesting to see who runs this time around. There’s a lot of rumors but, you know, the filing deadline is not upon us yet for that and so we really don’t know what candidates are going to come forward yet.
CAVANAUGH: So tell us, Miriam, what else are you follow – what other stories are you following now that we’re going to be hearing about in the next couple of weeks?
RAFTERY: Well, we’ve touched on Powerlink but one of the huge issues out there is that even though the PUC and the Bureau of Land Management have approved it and even though SDG&E is going forward, trying to invoke imminent domain to seize up to 80 properties so that it can begin construction this summer, a little known fact is that a large chunk of that land also runs through federal forest land, Cleveland National Forest, and the Forest Director, William Metz, has not yet decided whether he is going to approve the Powerlink or not. I sat in on a meeting with Mr. Metz and some of the people opposed to the Powerlink a couple of days ago and he did assure everybody that he is keeping an open mind and he has not yet made up his mind. There was a very interesting presentation that some folks made to him with suggestions for an alternative route and they’re claiming that SDG&E relied on incorrect fire maps that only showed where fires had occurred, you know, on certain lands but not others, that they left off every fire on Bureau of Land Management land on their maps and that they didn’t meet with CalFire, and some other allegations that were raised that Mr. Metz seemed to take quite seriously and has agreed to let them make their presentation to some folks higher up in the Forest Service. So it’s, you know, never a dull moment.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ll see what other stories you’re working on, Miriam, when we have you back. Thank you so much for joining us.
RAFTERY: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Miriam Raftery, editor of Eastcountymagazine.org. If you’d like to comment, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a lesson in spring bugs as These Days continues here on KPBS.