Peninsula Press staff writer Chris Rogers contributed to this article.
Palo Alto voters overwhelmingly opposed a ballot measure that would have given residents more say over Fire Department staffing levels.
Nearly 75 percent of voters were against the measure.
City firefighters had collected 7,000 signatures to put Measure R on the ballot, arguing that citizens should have more say over Fire Department staffing levels. The measure would have required two public hearings and a citywide election to close fire stations or reduce staff.
Palo Alto’s mayor and all members of the City Council opposed the idea. Councilman Larry Klein said it would have been a mistake to make the department “immune to any reduction in the number of firefighters or fire stations.” Reducing staff would become nearly impossible, he said, because of the city’s one-year budget cycle and the time it takes to put initiatives on the ballot.
“If someone wants to reduce the number of firefighters, the earliest it could get on the ballot would be four months after the budget went into effect,” he said. The firefighters union countered that all the city would have to do is amend the budget.
Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, said the measure was necessary because the city too often has left vacancies open. The police chief, for example, now acts as the interim fire chief. Spitaleri also worries that fire stations could be closed.
While Palo Alto’s population has grown, the Fire Department’s staffing level hasn’t increased since 1970, Spitaleri said. “We can’t reduce staffing any more without response times going up,” he said. The Palo Alto department’s average response time — measured from when a call comes in to when a truck arrives — has increased over the past four years, according to a Fire Department study.
The average response time last year was 5 minutes 37 seconds, slower than the maximum five minutes the National Institute of Health recommends, the study said.
But former mayor and council member Dena Mossar said the issue has more to do with governance than public safety. “It’s a question of who should be making decisions — not a question of response times.”
Klein said the 1970 comparison is misleading. That was the year the Palo Alto and Stanford fire departments merged. Inevitably, he said, mergers resulted in job redundancies and the need for reductions. “Since the merger, there haven’t been major reductions,” Klein said.
“Safe Palo Alto,” the campaign against Measure R, raised more than $60,000, according the city clerk’s office. Union President Spitaleri said that firefighters loaned $35,000 to the campaign for Measure R.