Two incumbents and two newcomers are striving for a spot on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board of directors. Board President Chuck Bernstein and board member Robert Jones are running for reelection, with candidates Gary Bloom and Dionis Papavramidis seeking to join the board. The fire district provides emergency services to Atherton, East Palo Alto and surrounding unincorporated communities as well as Menlo Park.
Candidates responded in writing to this news organization's questions, making a case for why they're the best fit for the fire board, while also addressing key issues related to financial oversight, emergency planning and how to best work with the municipalities its serves.
Incumbent Board President Chuck Bernstein has served on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District (MPFPD) board of directors for nearly a decade now, but he believes there's still work to be done.
Bernstein works as an educator, serving as the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, an educational organization based in Palo Alto. He also teaches literature and economics and business within the program, as he has a doctorate in languages, literature and linguistics and an MBA, both from Stanford University.
Bernstein has also served in oversight roles for a multitude of organizations. He is a current member of San Mateo County's Countywide Oversight Board of the Former Redevelopment Agencies — which controls over $400 million in former redevelopment agency properties — and a former member of Menlo Park's Budget Advisory Committee and the CERT Advisory Board.
Bernstein said that he is the best candidate for the job due to his diligence, financial experience, leadership experience and willingness to serve.
If reelected, Bernstein said he aims to improve the quality of information the board receives from district staff. Bernstein said that in the past, the MPFPD has made decisions based on incomplete or incorrect information from the staff.
"We board members have not insisted on participating in critical decisions because of our fear of being accused of micromanaging and probing 'in the weeds,'" Bernstein wrote. "However, the devil is in the details, and we were content, far too often, with letting the devil win."
He said he has learned from his experience that it is essential to "trust but verify" when provided with information by district staff. Bernstein provided examples, saying that the district moved to a four-day workweek without approval from the board. Bernstein believes a public agency should be open five or six days a week. He also does not agree with senior management having two months of paid vacation, as they're essential to the district and cannot take two months away from work.
"It is mostly the decisions we did not make and that were delegated that I regret," Bernstein wrote.
Bernstein also said that the district has "more than adequate" revenue from taxes, and while he doesn't predict an issue with monetary shortages, he does see a problem with employee compensation. According to Bernstein, the MPFPD has the highest average compensation per person of any government agency in California, which he said should not continue.
One problem the board has faced recently is a fractured relationship with Atherton. The town discussed separation from the district in 2020, over complaints that with its higher property values, its tax revenue was making up the majority of MPFPD's funding, without receiving commensurately higher services or benefits.
Bernstein said that he would want to deal with the situation by meeting with constituent agencies once a year, and said he has had a productive conversation with Atherton earlier this year. Bernstein said he planned to meet with Menlo Park on Oct. 20 and is scheduling a meeting with East Palo Alto.
Bernstein said that the dispute was over finances, not the quality of the service the MPFPD was providing, and that he was also unhappy with some of the district's priorities in the budget.
"(The MPFPD) does not serve the cities, town, and county that comprise it; it should serve its residents," Bernstein said. "However, to ensure effective and efficient services to residents, it should cooperate with its constituent (and neighbor) agencies, as well as the parallel agencies."
Bernstein's website can be found at chuckbernstein.org.
Gary Bloom believes he'll be the best candidate for the fire district board due to his extensive experience with both business management and hands-on emergency services.
Bloom is a retired CEO with experience overseeing organizations and managing budgets. He has also served on boards for public companies and nonprofits as well as advisory groups.
In addition, Bloom is a volunteer for the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Unit, Menlo Park Fire's California Task Force 3 Urban Search and Rescue team and an EMT for Rock Medicine, an organization that provides medical care at Bay Area events.
One of Bloom's priorities is community preparedness in the case of an emergency. Bloom has previously called a natural disaster "inevitable" for the district.
"The recent hurricane in Florida proves that the community can never be too prepared for a natural or man-made disaster," Bloom said.
Bloom also said that he'll prioritize the relationship between ambulance providers and the district, and he has previously said that he wants ambulance service to be provided from within the district to combat long wait times.
He also said that he wants the MPFPD to focus on diversity and equity in their staffing. He spoke at the board's Sept. 20 meeting as a community member to say that the board wasn't providing enough attention to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ad Hoc Committee, where the future of the committee was being considered.
"I think this is a terrible missed opportunity to send a really strong message to the community and a really strong message to every employee in the district about how important (diversity) is," Bloom said in the meeting.
The board ultimately decided to retain the committee.
While Bloom said he doesn't have access to all records related to the district's finances to comment, he said that it seems the district has sufficient funding to provide high-quality services.
After discussing Atherton's consideration of separating from the fire district with two Atherton City Council members, Bloom believes that the situation could have been prevented, and that future conflicts can be prevented through clear communication.
"The situation could have been avoided if the board focused more directly on the relationship with the various city councils," Bloom wrote.
He said that the board needs to engage more directly with various city councils in order to prevent a similar situation. Bloom suggests regularly scheduled meetings with council members so that everyone has a voice and understands how the fiscal elements of the fire district interact with day-to-day operations.
Bloom's website is garybloomforfireboard.com.
Incumbent Board Member Robert Jones has served for five years and said he can tackle issues from a practical and strategic standpoint to prioritize both inclusivity and the standard of service.
Jones has a rich history of involvement in the development of affordable housing as a retired executive director and founder of East Palo Alto Community Alliance and Neighborhood Development Organization (EPA CAN DO). He has also served on the board of Jobtrain (previously OICW) and project developer for Eden Housing. Jones was the recipient of a fellowship from the Housing Association of Northern California to learn the technical aspect of affordable housing development for 18 months.
If reelected, Jones said that he would have a continued focus on diversity and inclusion, as well as continuing to develop the Fire District Community Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan and the board's strategic plan with an emphasis on accountability.
Jones said that he believes the board of directors should have permitted the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ad Hoc Committee to hire a consultant. Jones said that the consultant could have assisted the committee in analyzing data and equity indicators to move toward greater diversity in the fire district.
Financially, Jones said that the MPFPD always operates within its budget, but he has concerns about how financial reports are managed and reported.
As a solution, Jones recommends an annual board strategic planning and accountability structural review process. He hopes that the board can set aside money, if available, for capital improvement projects in the future since the district is in a good financial position.
Addressing Atherton, Jones said that he believes the MPFPD and Atherton are currently in agreement that the district has done well protecting the residents of the town.
"The fire district is committed to continuing this service not only to the town of Atherton but to all the other cities and county portions within the Menlo Park Fire Protection boundaries," Jones said.
Jones does not have a campaign website.
Papavramidis did not respond to The Almanac's multiple attempts to contact him. According to his Facebook profile, he was born in Athens, Greece where he attended college and now lives in East Palo Alto.