A divided City Council Tuesday followed through on a plan to save the city $40,000 by putting a civilian in one of the Fire Department’s top jobs.
But instead of winning praise for sticking to its commitment to cut expenses, councilmembers drew fire fr om the city’s Personnel Board and two firefighters who argued the plan would imperil emergency planning and deny minority firefighters their best shot at a promotion.
After a lengthy discussion, the council voted 7-2 (Kriss Worthington and Betty Olds vo t ed no) to approve the new position of fire prevention manager.
The controversial new Fire Department job was a product of an agreement between the city and the Fire Department last spring to cut $500,000 from the department while leaving basic services i ntact.
The cut was authorized as part of a city plan to close a $10 million budget deficit.
Instead of shutting down a ladder truck or engine company, the city and Fire Department agreed to eliminate an assistant fire chief position, and to eliminat e t he city’s Office of Emergency Services by consolidating it into the Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Division. The consolidation created the post of fire prevention manager, a civilian who would also assume the duties of fire marshal, previously performe d by an assistant chief.
By installing a civilian rather than a Fire Department official as the fire prevention manager, the city stands to save $40,000 a year in lower pension benefits.
The council lauded the deal in May, but this summer the city’s Per sonnel Board came out against it.
“We’re concerned that a civilian employee doesn’t have the expertise and experience a uniformed firefighter would have,” Personnel Boardmember Hank Silver told the council.
The board requested that the council del ay a vote until the board conferred with the city’s Disaster Council, which had come out against the plan. But City Manager Phil Kamlarz, citing the need to move forward and honor the council’s budget balancing plan, opted to take the matter before the co uncil Tuesday.
“What we are upset about is the short-circuiting of the democratic process,” said Boardmember Chuck Robinson.
Even more important, said Berkeley firefighter David Ross, is that the new position denies him and his two fellow minority firef ighter s in the Fire Prevention Department the chance at a promotion to department head, which had historically been held by a minority.
“We’ve been excluded from the hiring process,” he said.
Gil Dong, first vice president of the firefighters union, sa id Acti ng Chief David Orth told firefighters in March that William Guerlich, the city’s emergency services manager, would fill the new position. The announcement sparked protests from the union, which insisted the city hold an open competition for the jo b.
The union contends Guerlich is untrained to serve as fire marshal and that instead of consolidating the positions, the city could save even more money if it assigned one of the remaining four assistant chiefs as fire marshal, or if it reinstituted th e positi on at a lower salary.
Acting Fire Chief Orth insisted Guerlich would face competition, as required for civil service jobs. With the recent retirements of Chief Reginald Garcia and an assistant chief, Orth has been filling both the jobs of fire m arshal an d assistant chief.
Even with an open competition, Guerlich would seem likely to get the nod. Since his position is being consolidated with the Fire Department, he would conceivably be out a job if he wasn’t named to the post.
Councilmember Betty Olds l ed the charge against giving the position to a civilian. “This man or woman will be fire marshal 75 percent of the time and disaster planner 25 percent of the time. It just can’t work that way,” she said. “Things won’t go well.”
Councilmember Gordon Wozn iak replied, “Everyone these days has to do two jobs; it’s called multi-tasking.”
Also holding the line on retreating from its decision last June was Mayor Tom Bates. “We accepted in the budget that we are going down this path,” he said befor e the counci l vote.
Medical Cannabis supporters dominated the council’s public comment period, but their pleas did not sway the council from authorizing staff to draft a proposal establishing a quota of three pot clubs in Berkeley.
“Th is is essenti al medicine. If you limit it in Berkeley there won’t be enough medicine to go around,” said Angel McClary Raich, a medical cannabis patient and a party to a cannabis lawsuit before the Supreme Court this year.
The proposal would also requi re clubs to be located a specified distance from schools and each other. The council will vote on the final resolution sometime next year.
Councilmember Linda Maio said she proposed the ordinance to prevent cannabis clubs that have been shut down by a si milar law in O akland from relocating to Berkeley.
The city officially recognizes three cannabis clubs within city limits, though a fourth club is believed to exist on Shattuck Avenue north of University Avenue.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington called th e measure “a so lution in search of a problem.” He said he wasn’t against a quota, but he thought three clubs were too few and any new regulation effort should include a provision to increase the number of marijuana plants patients can grow.
Utility Unde rgrounding
Afte r four years of struggle, residents of 105 homes near the Kensington border voted 73-to-21 to establish the first district to bury its utilities underground.
The 79 percent approval was far greater than the two-thirds majority needed to establish the district.
Households in the Thousand Oaks Heights Undergrounding District will be required to pay an average of $21,000 to cover the costs of the project, estimated at $2.3 million.
An initial payment of between $500 and $2,500 is due wi thin six months. Carol Bledsoe, a member of the Steering Committee that pushed for the undergrounding said supporters were working on a plan to help neighbors who might have difficulty making payments.
Recently, the city mailed residents information on financial options—including reverse mortgages—for residents who don’t have funds available to pay for the project.