"We thought we had an agreement to go forward and the county stopped it," Vice Mayor Bob Brockman, a member of the city's fire services subcommittee, told the council. "We have an election coming up and we feel the county is dragging their feet and don't want to make a decision. Somebody needs to get off their seats and make a decision, even if it's hard."
At issue is the formation of a governing body that will run the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District once the details are worked out on a plan to take it out from under the control of the county Board of Supervisors. The new governing board is expected to be made up of residents of three areas: Brentwood, Oakley and the unincorporated areas of the county within the ECCFPD. The district provides services to Discovery Bay, Byron, Knightsen, Bethel Island and points between, in addition to the two cities.
Seats on the governing board would be assigned according to the population of the three zones. One model would include nine members: four from Brentwood, three from Oakley and two from the county. A possible seven-member model would give Brentwood three representatives, and Oakley and the county two each.
Brentwood officials have said they are OK with either model. The sticking point is in the make-up of the rest of the board, and whether Oakley, which has a significantly larger population than the unincorporated area, should have the same number of seats as the county (as in the seven-member model) or one more member (as in the nine-member model).
Talks between the county and Oakley aimed at making the idea of equal representation with the county more palatable to Oakley have so far not produced results. Piepho could not give specifics about what deal points might be involved in those talks.
"That remains to be seen," Piepho said Wednesday. "It's a negotiating process. We may not even be able to do that."
Oakley Mayor Bruce Connelley said that for the city to agree to equal representation with the county, there would need to be some other benefit.
"If the county can't adjust something else or help out in some other way, it would be best to go with the nine-member arrangement that is more reflective of the population," Connelley said. He added that a proposal to recommend the nine-member board would be brought to the Feb. 12 Oakley council meeting.
Piepho said putting the unincorporated area "at the bottom" of the representation list could lead to complaints of under-representation from residents of Discovery Bay and Bethel Island, and that it was her job to look out for the welfare of the entire district. Also, disharmony in the district could doom any assessment the district might propose to voters in order to bring services up to industry standards.
"I have to take a view of how we're going to keep this together," she said. Recent work on the district has been focused on creating the body of the joint powers agreement that will govern the district, she said. Discussions about filling board seats began only about a month ago.
"If it takes an extra month to make sure we've tried to take care of everybody, perhaps that's an investment we should make," she said. "I'm frustrated, too, but that doesn't mean we should rush into a bad decision."
"I wouldn't be surprised" if Discovery Bay residents complained about a tax increase, said Bob Doran, vice president of the Town of Discovery Bay Community Services District. Doran, who represented the town on the Fire Master Plan Committee that disbanded nearly a year ago, has long been an advocate of Discovery Bay occupying a seat on any fire service governing board, but said he had not pressed Piepho on giving unincorporated areas equal representation with Oakley.
"The only pressure is: we want a seat, and we should have one," Doran said, adding that he had not discussed the subject with Piepho since the Master Plan Committee broke up.
The Brentwood City Council, however, believes politics, not representation, is behind the delay in setting the governance board make-up and finishing the transfer of power to far East County control. Councilman Chris Becnel said until that happens, any talk of additional assessments is pointless, regardless of the position of other ECCFPD residents.
"They (the Board of Supervisors) can't balance their own books, and I'm never going to give them more money," Becnel said. "It's very clear that the fire service in East Contra Costa has been short-changed by the county ever since it (the ECCFPD) was formed (six years ago). It needs to stop. It needs to stop now. The county needs to put up or shut up, or the cities of Oakley and Brentwood will move in another direction. Our local County Supervisor (Piepho) is at the bottom of this problem."
That direction, breaking away from the ECCFPD and forming a new district of its own, has been discussed in the past, but not in detail. It would require an OK from the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, and that approval would be hard to get, Piepho said.
"LAFCO is about orderly government, not disorderly government," she said, adding that such a move would leave smaller far East County communities without fire protection. "They (LAFCO) are not going to support that."
The Brentwood council, however, is frustrated to the point that at least looking into some other arrangement seems potentially worthwhile.
"Unfortunately, (the fire issue) is being used as a political chess piece, and the residents are getting screwed," Councilman Erick Stonebarger said. He believes it's critical that the issue be resolved before spring, and can't understand why the supervisors wouldn't want the same thing, even if there is an election coming.
"I would think this is one thing they'd really want an accomplishment on," he said.
Piepho said the idea that politics is behind the delays is "completely BS." No ballot measure is likely to take place until 2009 anyway, she said, so a bit more time spent trying to find middle ground might help appease residents who could otherwise feel disenfranchised and campaign against a tax increase.
"At least I can say, 'I worked hard and it didn't work,'" she said.
Firefighter Union Local 1230 President Vince Wells, who was present at Tuesday's meeting, said his union would ultimately like to see the district become fully independent with its own elected board, but for now the plan to run it with the currently proposed appointed board would be "OK." The important thing, he said, is "to get to the next step," namely, addressing the district's current inequities in working conditions and pay. "We represent 32 fire districts, and this one is not only 32nd (on the pay list), it's 50 percent behind number 31," he said.
Like Oakley's, Brentwood's City Council will consider a resolution calling for the nine-member governing board model at its Feb. 12 meeting.