The first political firefight of the San Jose mayor’s race has adopted the adage “everything old is new again.”
Two weeks ago, the county Board of Supervisors took a bold vote to withhold $700,000 from the city of San Jose due to its fire department’s slow—and in some cases absent—emergency response times. Contracted by the county to arrive first on the scene for high-priority “lights and sirens” emergencies within eight minutes, 90 percent of the time, SJFD has routinely showed up late and misreported its response times in the last four years.
Almost every major South Bay media outlet took an interest in the story, but a disconcerting fact escaped the collective narrative: The fire department’s dangerously delinquent response times, which were first reported by Metro, became public more than a year ago, and no one batted an eye until now—four months before the June primary.
Eschewing a memo for a more media-friendly press conference a day before the county’s vote, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, a San Jose mayoral candidate, went in front of cameras in the tiny Willow Glen neighborhood and excoriated city officials for not providing service levels it promised when contracting out to the county. “My statement was to encourage a posture of creating a remedial plan and keeping the door open to releasing that money to the city,” Cortese told Metro.
Madison Nguyen, San Jose’s vice mayor and also a mayoral candidate, fired off a campaign missive in response to Cortese’s public tongue-lashing, advising the supe not to sling stones from a glass house. The county recently had its own oversight called into question after Rural/Metro, the county ambulance provider, fell into bankruptcy while also dealing with slow response times.
“We didn’t do this when Rural/Metro, the county ambulance provider, was missing its response times,” Nguyen said. “It’s two different standards, and that’s why I disagreed with his actions.”
Oddly enough, so did one of Cortese’s colleagues on the county board—at least initially.
Joe Simitian, the county supervisor who led the charge for punitive action against the city of San Jose, began studying the issue in November after a fire report went in front of the Health and Hospital Committee. “I was sort of surprised by the so-called grudging acceptance of the status quo,” Simitian said.
He was again caught off guard when Cortese—who has received substantial support from firefighters during his political career; they gave his mayoral campaign $14,150 in just December—took the pole on publicity. Simitian had carefully crafted a plan to force the SJFD to improve, and here was Cortese, who initially backed a substantially softer stance on withholding funds, making the issue his own.
Multiple sources told Metro that Simitian was livid when he learned of Cortese’s actions, which Nguyen’s campaign equated to political grandstanding.
“I was pleased that supervisor Cortese shared my concern,” Simitian said with a laugh. He then added diplomatically, “I think it’s brought attention to the issue that might have been difficult to garner.”
An even more difficult challenge now awaits San Jose, which will be forced to reallocate money in the upcoming budget talks while the county keeps $700,00 in limbo. Two similar-sized payments could also be withheld in the future if SJFD doesn’t get its house in order. The Board stipulated in its vote that the city’s fire department must meet response times for three consecutive months before handing over the money.
Those demands are almost certain to go unmet in the near future, as fire officials still haven’t come up with a plan, let alone figured out how poor their response rates have been.
“There’s no specific plan,” said Cleo Doss, a public information officer for SJFD. “We need personnel and we need resources—resource meaning more equipment, more fire engines. You want a definite fix, that’s what you need.”
Next week, the City Council will discuss next year’s contract with the firefighters union, which passed on an offered 2-percent raise as the city takes baby steps to restore salaries to pre-recession levels. “The basic deal is the fire union wanted everything continued,” said Sam Liccardo, a San Jose councilman who is also running for Chuck Reed’s termed-out mayoral seat. “They’re hoping for a bigger deal when someone else is mayor.”
Cortese told Metro that he had absolutely no contact with the fire department or union officials before his press conference, where he blamed city officials for cutbacks in service levels when “human lives are at stake.”
“It’s not up to me to sit around and try to figure out whether fire personnel are going to be happy or upset,” he said. “In this case I haven’t heard whether they are or not. They may have strong feelings about it, but if so I’m not aware of it.”
Cortese’s public calendar plays close to the vest, as many of the meetings he takes are noted as a “private appointment.” He did, however, attend the San Jose Fire Museum’s 160th Anniversary Firefighters Ball on Jan. 25.
A source with knowledge of the machinations at play scoffed at Cortese’s claim of non-coordination. “The SJFD union is definitely behind all of this. They’re pissed off about pay and benefits.” The source added that the fire union has been pushing the county to take over department operations “for more than five years.”
“Think they’d be treated better. It could be done, but won’t be done during a situation like this.”
With an interim fire chief, low department morale and a flawed layout of fire stations—apparently incapable of traversing San Jose’s urban sprawl—the quarrel over SJFD response times could be just the beginning of a greater standoff. An active work plan is being studied that could lead to the broad restructuring of who controls the fire department.
Local television station NBC has taken credit for “breaking” the story of slow fire responses, noting that times may have been doctored. While this could be true, fire officials—including previous fire chief Willie McDonald and interim chief Ruben Torres—have publicly stated for more than year that they don’t even know what response times from 2009-2012 might be. The TV station’s latest report floated the idea that enlisting Rural/Metro could be an option to help alleviate an overstressed SJFD.
“Remarkably, [NBC] went through the whole story and never mentioned Rural/Metro is incompetent,” said Liccardo, who filed a joint memo with councilman Pete Constant on Tuesday proposing new deployment strategies that would change restrictions on minimum staffing and expand the use of two-person squad cars to respond to non-fire emergencies.
Robert Sapien, who was recently promoted by Torres to deputy chief, and as a result gave up his post as president of the fire union Local 230, told Metro that an active work plan is underway to see about consolidating dispatch services for county and city fire responses. Doss confirmed that senior staff for SJFD has held meetings to consider all options.
However, anything to come out of those meetings seems unlikely to result in firm action. As Doss admitted, the department has had more than year to address slow and missing response times and still hasn’t put together a plan.