Tiburon Fire Protection District: Three incumbents look to fend off two challengers
The three incumbents looking to retain their seats on the Tiburon Fire Protection District board of directors will need to fend off two challengers in the Nov. 8 election.
Board members Cheryl Woodford, Emmett O’Donnell and Richard Jones will face off against green-energy attorney John Hamilton and Woodlands Market supervisor Brette Daniels on the ballot.
Woodford, O’Donnell and Jones were all originally appointed to the board to fill interim vacancies. Woodford in 2018 ran unopposed for a four-year seat and is seeking her second term, while O’Donnell and Jones are seeking their first four-year terms on the board.
The race is one of two on the ballot for the board of the fire district, which serves Tiburon southeast of Trestle Glen Boulevard and all of Belvedere. In the other contest, incumbent Mark Capell is running unchallenged for a two-year seat on the board.
Daniels cites desire to give back to community
Daniels, 56, has lived in Tiburon’s Red Hill neighborhood for nearly three years. He grew up in San Pablo and studied culinary arts and criminal justice at Contra Costa College.
His father was a 35-year police veteran, and his mother worked with the city of San Pablo.
Daniels said he was recruited by the California Democratic Party to run for a local race as part of the group’s effort to get more people involved in local politics. He chose to enter the Tiburon fire district contest because his father was a first responder and, through his job at Woodlands, he interacts with many of the district’s firefighters.
He also said he was motivated by a desire to give back to the community, noting that he comes from a family of activists, and his mother previously sat on the San Pablo City Council.
“The first time I went to vote, my mother’s name was on the ballot, so she’s always encouraged me to be involved in the community,” he said.
In his free time, Daniels volunteers at his church in the East Bay in various capacities, including feeding the homeless.
If elected, Daniels said his priorities would include making sure the community is as safe as can be, making sure the district’s money is being spent with the community in mind and making sure fire personnel have the best equipment and knowledge to stay safe.
Hamilton says career experience would be asset to board
Hamilton, 38, is an Air Force veteran and a Top Gun graduate who has for the past three years resided in the Belveron neighborhood with his wife, Anna, and their two kids.
The son of a volunteer firefighter, Hamilton earned a bachelor’s in public policy, a master’s of business and a law degree from Stanford University.
He enlisted in the Air Force after 9/11 and served eight years as an intelligence officer and captain in Afghanistan, South Korea and Europe.
He currently works as an attorney for SunPower, a Bay Area residential solar company.
Like Daniels, Hamilton said the state Democratic party reached out to him and encouraged him to run, and he carries an endorsement from the Marin County Democratic Party and from the local firefighters union, Marin Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 1775.
He said emergency preparedness, with an emphasis on fire safety, would be his top priority as a board member. He’s also passionate about financial responsibility and community values.
Hamilton notes that the Tiburon Fire Protection District is the only fire agency in Marin that didn’t join the county’s Wildfire Prevention Authority and is suffering as a result, as it doesn’t benefit from pooled resources or grant funding that’s being used to conduct wildfire evaluations or upgrade emergency sirens and other disaster-preparedness technologies.
He said he believes his experience and desire to give back to the community would make him an asset to the board.
“I have leadership experience from the public and private sector that I’ll bring to the role, and I think a lot of this is providing good oversight of the district and asking tough questions in order to continue to make the district better,” he said.
He is also endorsed by the North Bay Labor Council, Marin County Young Democrats and Tiburon Town Councilmember Noah Griffin.
Woodford’s re-election bid driven by passion for service
Woodford, 51, moved to Tiburon in 2007. She and her husband live in the Hill Haven neighborhood, where she has served for the past decade as president of the Hill Haven Neighborhood Association, which encompasses Tiburon streets including Mountain View Drive, Ridge Road and Lagoon View Drive.
She grew up on the East Coast and earned a bachelor’s in political science from Drew University in New Jersey.
She previously worked in sales for investment management firm Barclays Global Investors and in marketing and sales at Prudential Investments. She’s currently focused on volunteer work.
Woodford was appointed to the fire district board in 2017 to fill an interim seat after the death of Margot Plant. Woodford is just the second woman, after Plant, to serve on the board. She won her current four-year seat by default in 2018 when no challengers emerged.
She said she decided to run for re-election because she thinks serving is a worthwhile cause and is passionate about giving back to the community.
Should she be re-elected to a second term, Woodford said her priorities would include continuing to provide fiscal oversight to the district with an emphasis on pension funding and retirement benefits; overseeing the remodel of the district’s Trestle Glen station, known as Station 10; and supporting vegetation management and emergency preparedness efforts.
“I think we’re all sensitive to changing climates and rising temperatures and the possibility of there being some sort of emergency in our district, so I think it’s really important that the board members continue to work with Chief (Richard) Pearce and the rest of the firefighters to make sure that we are in a position to be able to respond quickly and also to do preventative vegetation management,” Woodford said.
Jones eager to continue board work
Jones, 67, resides in the Old Tiburon neighborhood. He has lived in town since 1985, when he moved from Belvedere.
A graduate of Washington State University, Jones is a retired real-estate agent and project-management consultant. He was also a volunteer firefighter for the district from 1990 to 2005 and served as president of the volunteer group at one point.
He was appointed to an interim seat on the board last January to fill a vacancy created when longtime board member Tom O’Neill moved to Calistoga.
Jones said he wanted to run for re-election because he would like to continue the work he’s been doing for the past nine months. He also said his fellow board members encouraged him to seek a new four-year term.
Key issues he’d like the board to continue to focus on include budget oversight and ensuring proper use of funds for the community; bolstering the area’s emergency preparedness by working on fire-fuel management; and the Station 10 remodel, where he said his project management background would come in handy.
Other priorities for Jones include emergency preparedness, “and I say that from a wildland urban interface perspective but also from an earthquake perspective.”
“I’d like to see some volunteer involvement in the community more so than has been in the past, and we need to continue to decrease the fuel load on the peninsula,” he said.
Supporting the morale and health of the district’s firefighters is also important to Jones.
“Firefighters are exposed to a lot of different things, especially when they go out on wildland calls for two weeks at a time, which has happened twice in the last couple of months,” Jones said.
O’Donnell brings long legacy of civil service
O’Donnell, 61, has lived in Tiburon’s Hill Haven neighborhood since 2001.
A 1984 graduate of Harvard University, O’Donnell is an owner of steel processing and distribution firms with operations in California and Washington. He’s now semi-retired after selling some interest in the facilities.
He was appointed to an interim seat on the fire board in June 2021 to replace longtime board member David Kirchhoff, who moved out of the district.
His stint on the fire board is the latest role for O’Donnell in some two decades of volunteer civil service. He spent three years on the town’s Design Review Board and three on the Planning Commission before he was elected to the Town Council in 2009, where he served as mayor. He resigned in 2017, stepping down one year shy of completing a five-year term, which had been extended a year as part of an election-schedule change to meet state voter-turnout requirements.
He’s currently the president of the Tiburon Peninsula Foundation.
O’Donnell said he wanted to run for re-election because he’s enjoyed his interim stint on the board; he noted his fellow board members also encouraged him to run for a new term. He said his familiarity with the operations of government agencies, including his experience dealing with budgets, are an asset.
He said the most important issue the board is facing is the Station 10 remodel, noting the building is in desperate need of an update.
“The fire station is quite old … roughly 50 years old and was originally built as a volunteer fire house just for the volunteers … and it’s gone past its expiration date. It doesn’t even meet certain codes that a fire department puts on other buildings,” O’Donnell said.
His other priorities include making sure the district maintains a healthy financial position, that equipment is always at a “first class, ready state” and that pension obligation and retiree benefits are property funded.
He said he doesn’t know Daniels or Hamilton but has enjoyed working with Woodford and Jones and would like to see them re-elected.
Candidates evaluate district’s level of service
The candidates weighed in on the level of service the district provides to the residents it serves and the adequacy of its efforts to prepare residents for emergencies and natural disasters.
The Tiburon fire district and the city of Belvedere, which contracts fire services from the district, were the only two jurisdictions in the county that opted out of joining the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, formed in 2019. The 17-member authority covers 96 percent of Marin’s population and 98 percent of the land mass, and it receives about $19.3 million annually from a parcel tax approved by voters in 2020 for comprehensive wildfire prevention and planning efforts across Marin, including vegetation management, evacuation drills and defensible-space inspections.
The authority was able to use funding to purchase the Zonehaven disaster-response app, but Tiburon was left out and independently acquired it later. The authority is now using pooled funding to upgrade its emergency sirens across Southern Marin, including in Strawberry.
The Tiburon fire district’s board of directors voted 3-2 in 2019 to opt out of the district, with officials saying the proposed services would overlap with steps the district is already taking toward local wildfire mitigation.
Of all the candidates, only Hamilton said he believed the district should have joined the authority and that he would have voted in favor had he been on the board at the time.
While he noted there are some trade-offs to being a part of the authority — namely the parcel tax — he said the board’s decision not to join puts increased responsibility on the district to make fire safety a priority, including being more active in supporting residents in home hardening.
“I think we can do all of the things that we need to do from a wildfire-prevention standpoint by still not being part of this county authority, though we need to be proactive ourselves,” Hamilton said.
Daniels said he’d like to study the topic further before forming an opinion on whether or not opting out of the authority was the right decision. He said if it were something that would make the community safer, then it would be right to join.
All three incumbents stood by the decision to opt out, including Woodford, who cast one of the three board votes against joining.
She said the district is “so far ahead” of a lot of other fire-taxing agencies in the county and joining the authority would have meant “a lot of redundancies.”
“Maybe there’s one or two things that could be improved upon, but I think the majority of overlap was overwhelming and would have been a big-time resource that we didn’t necessarily have to be able to spend on it,” Woodford said.
O’Donnell said the issue was one of “controlling our own funds for our own purposes versus putting our tax revenues into a much larger county pool and probably getting less out of it in the end.”
“I think we do much better as a standalone agency,” he said.
Jones said he also believes the district was ahead of the game on what the authority wanted to achieve and on investing in efforts to encourage defensible space, vegetation management and public education. He said it didn’t appear the Tiburon district would get much out of the program.
All the candidates said they were pleased with the level of service the district’s firefighters and paramedics provide to the community.
“I am in very close contact with a lot of the fire guys, and from what I can see and whenever I speak with them, the guys always got a very positive attitude toward the area, their job and what they do,” Daniels said.
Hamilton, who has the union’s backing, added that he’d like to see the firefighters and personnel paid commensurately for the “great work that they’re doing.” He said the firefighters waived their cost-of-living adjustment during the pandemic and haven’t been given a cost-of-living increase related to inflation.
O’Donnell noted the board often receives thank-you cards for the district’s service, while Woodford said she is happy with the response times provided to the board by the fire chief. She noted the department recently responded to her house within 4-5 minutes after she reported a potential gas leak.
Jones applauded the district’s employees.
“They are very professional and they’re very well trained,” he said.
Emergency preparedness a focus for board hopefuls
While the incumbents in the race said they believe the district is doing enough to prepare its residents for disasters, the challengers said they believe the district could be doing more.
O’Donnell pointed to the district’s popular Chipper Days, which encourage residents to create defensible space around their homes by offering free disposal of vegetation cuttings and clippings, and its defensible-space program, in which fire officials will visit a home and make recommendations on improvements that can be made to make it more fire-resilient.
Woodford said the district is in a great position, and Jones echoed that statement, saying he thinks the district is doing a good job preparing its residents but that there’s always the potential to do better.
Daniels said the district should organize more community emergency-planning events, while Hamilton said he is going door-to-door to chat with residents, and many people have told him they’re concerned about wildfire and fire safety.
“I think we should be providing more supports to residents and homeowners who live in the wildland urban interface,” Hamilton said.
He said in addition to fully staffing the district, he thinks it should improve its emergency-warning system.
Though its participation in the wildfire authority, the Southern Marin Fire Protection District received funding to upgrade its emergency-siren system to long-range acoustic devices, which can project both siren and voice recordings to alert and inform community members during a large-scale disaster.
However, the Tiburon district has not yet put forth a public siren-upgrade plan.
“All of the neighboring fire districts have upgraded their emergency sirens … to a long-range acoustical device that includes parts of Tiburon that aren’t in the Tiburon fire district, as well as Mill Valley, Sausalito, Strawberry,” Hamilton said, noting the Tiburon district should follow suit. He said he believes the district itself could cover the costs of siren upgrades and, if needed, they could solicit contributions from Tiburon and Belvedere or seek state or federal funds.
Daniels said he too is supportive of having the sirens upgraded; he noted cities he’s lived in previously had sirens that were part of the local infrastructure.
Woodford said she doesn’t know whether the district has plans for prioritizing siren upgrades or funding siren-related work.
Jones said he asked Pearce about siren upgrades and learned that the Tiburon district had reached out to the supplier running the system, who reportedly said it wouldn’t be effective for Tiburon’s topography.
O’Donnell said he’s not a fan of sirens, noting they may work well to notify people for certain weather events, such as a tornado, but earthquakes often occur unexpectedly.
“I actually kind of feel they’re a little bit of a wasted expenditure because I don’t see them serving a useful purpose in telling residents what should be done,” he said.
The candidates also shared their opinions on how the district should go about creating awareness of evacuation routes in the event of an emergency — a topic that’s generated some controversy in the past.
The district in 2017 presented a plan to place evacuation decals around Belvedere and Tiburon. The plastic decals, approved by Belvedere that year and by Tiburon in 2018, are 20-inch by 12-inch blue arrows that have the letter “E” in the center and are already in use in Mill Valley. Though they have yet to be placed locally, they drew negative feedback from officials in the Southern Marin Fire District, which covers northern and western Tiburon and wasn’t consulted on the plan before the Town Council approved installation in its jurisdiction.
Southern Marin Fire Chief Chris Tubbs expressed strong reservations about the use of decals in his jurisdiction, going so far as to call them confusing and potentially dangerous.
Tiburon Peninsula Emergency Services Coordinator Laurie Nilsen, who is now spearheading the installation, has said the intent of the decals is for education and awareness rather than to be taken literally. The decals can show residents the different through streets but don’t intend to identify a single predetermined evacuation route.
While Woodford said the planned evacuation decals are a good idea in theory and might be helpful for those who may be confused or panicked, she said people should know their neighborhoods and be able to find the safest exit.
“I think people are smart enough to be able to get themselves out of danger quickly … but I’m not against the decals,” Woodford said.
O’Donnell said he’s not really in favor of putting out a lot of evacuation signs, while Jones said he feels that signage is good but can also create problems, as the route directed might not be the best way out in an emergency.
Daniels said he’d be in favor of the district establishing an evacuation program so the town has a “clear-cut plan” on what to do if there is an emergency.
“When you see the amount of traffic and things of that nature that we have in the area, I think it is very, very important that we have some evacuation plans set up,” Daniels said.
Hamilton said he thinks the district should be doing regular evacuation drills and said they should have conducted one at the start of this fire season.
“I think they are an important way for both members of the community and our first responders, including the fire district and the police, to work together and practice what needs to happen before they’re in the situation of needing to do it in an emergency,” he said.
While Woodford said evacuation drills are a good idea in theory, she noted the fire district encourages neighbors to get to know each other and their neighborhood to be able to safely get out of harm’s way.
She said the Police Department takes the lead on evacuations and the district works in conjunction with them. This weekend, Tiburon fire will participate in the Get Ready Go 94920 drill and preparedness fair, initiated by the town.
Jones said the Oct. 16 neighborhood-walk event is a step in the right direction in educating residents.
He advocated for making sure the trees on the back side of Paradise Drive are cleared back and noted many people may not know about the lanes, stairs or pathways in the area that could be ways out and around Belvedere and Tiburon.
“It’s not just a matter of signage,” he said of evacuation efforts. “It’s also a matter of getting the word out.”
O’Donnell said emergency evacuation on a peninsula with one road in and one out will always be a challenge.
“We’re also surrounded by water and many people have boats, including me, so you can also boat off the island in the event of wildfire or something,” he said.
All of the candidates said it was important for residents to know multiple ways out of town, rather than one designated route.
Daniels noted that given state housing mandates that could bring more development and more traffic to Tiburon and Belvedere, it’s especially important to have evacuation routes in place.
Hamilton agreed it’s good to know multiple routes out of town. He said the more prepared and flexible residents are, the better.
District preps for Station 10 remodel
The fire district is planning for a $5.7-million upgrade to Station 10, which was built in the 1960s and which fire officials say has reached the end of its useful life.
The station, which is located on the corner of Trestle Glen Boulevard and Paradise Drive, was originally built as a two-stall station for volunteer firefighters and has since been built up to include living quarters, on-duty staff and additional fire apparatus.
The district’s plan calls for rebuilding a whole new station at the existing site that will have three bays for fire apparatus and larger living quarters for its workforce. It will also be equipped with an elevator to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
The district has about $1.7 million stored in its reserves toward the project and is seeking to take out a loan not to exceed $4.5 million from the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank to cover the remaining cost.
To help pay off that loan, the district board earlier this year voted to reactivate a parcel tax that hasn’t been levied in more than a decade; residents will pay $75 annually, while businesses will pay $125.
The tax, which carries no annual escalator and will appear on residents’ 2022-2023 tax bills, is expected to generate about $287,000 annually.
The project is expected to take 1½ years to complete.
Daniels said it’s important the project finishes on time and on budget. He said if other alternate funding mechanisms were considered but the tax was determined to be the best way to go, then it has to be done.
Hamilton said it is important the Station 10 project is actively supervised and managed by the board, citing his experience leading large projects in the public and private sector.
“A key part of that is building in contractual protections to make sure that any cost overruns aren’t borne by the district and that the project stays on schedule,” he said.
Woodford pointed out the district hired a financial consultant to make sure it stays within its budget. She said all board members have been pitching in to add their expertise to make sure the project stays within the timeframe and budget.
“All of that is something that is a huge priority for us, particularly because it is taxpayer dollars,” Woodford said.
Jones said the key to project management is to be proactive.
“If you don’t get on it early, you’re going to end up with a project that costs more money and it’s going to take longer,” he said.
O’Donnell said he’ll be vigilant about the financial aspects of the project and said the district is lucky in that raw material prices are lower now than they have been in the past few years.
All of the candidates said they believe reactivating the parcel tax was the best way to fund the project, though Hamilton said he believes there could’ve been more public outreach.
Candidates tackle lawsuit, diversity efforts
Woodford and Jones declined to comment on a sexual-harassment lawsuit settled by the district earlier this year.
In the suit, former employee Tara Murphy alleged a supervisor regularly made explicit comments toward her and that the district failed to protect her or investigate for months after senior officials — including the chief — were made aware of her complaints. The chief and supervisor, who was ultimately disciplined after the internal investigation concluded, are still with the agency.
The judge in the case declined several dismissal requests and ruled there was enough evidence to proceed to trial before the settlement agreement was reached. The district paid Murphy $500,000, though at the time it said the settlement was not an admission of liability and that it chose to settle to terminate “considerable additional fees and costs required to proceed through trial.”
O’Donnell said the incident pre-dated his tenure on the board and he only learned about it when the settlement proposal was made by the attorneys representing the fire district.
“There’s been different stories about the particular incident, and I don’t know who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong in this particular case, but it was determined by the board that it was better to settle the claims and it was the opinion of the attorney that it was better to settle the claims than to continue to pursue in court, and I supported that decision,” O’Donnell said.
Hamilton said he was reluctant to discuss litigation the district has faced in the past but said it is important that the district lives up to the community’s high expectations related to representation and respect in the workplace.
He noted part of the role of the board is to establish the leadership values of the organization and then make sure the district stays true to those values.
Daniels said accountability has to be a top priority for the district.
“People have to be held accountable. If not, we are doomed to fail in those areas, and those types of behaviors will probably reoccur,” he said.
He said it’s important for the district to promote diversity within its ranks.
“If we don’t have that then we have this kind of ‘good ol’ boy’ network where things are done in the back room and nobody really knows about it, and before you know it you have the same sort of situation over again,” he said.
He said a focus on diversity and inclusivity is one of the things that particularly interested him in running for a seat on the board.
“Myself being African American, I would look to see more minorities get involved. … I think diversity always helps, the opportunity to have different cultures makes the community grow,” he said.
To promote diversity and inclusivity among the district’s ranks, Hamilton said the district should be setting recruitment and retention priorities aimed at increasing gender and racial diversity. He said when the district recruits for candidates, it needs to make sure it’s recruiting from a diverse pool of candidates and retaining them once hired.
Woodford expressed a similar notion for working on diversity and inclusivity and said the district continues to reach out to a wide range of people whenever it has an open position.
“I think we’re doing everything that we possibly can to make sure that we are inclusive and diverse,” Woodford said.
Jones said he wasn’t able to speak to what the district should do to promote diversity and inclusivity because he has only been on the board a short time and has not been closely involved in the hiring process.
O’Donnell said promoting diversity and inclusivity among district ranks is important but noted board directors don’t get involved too much in individual personnel decisions. He said the board can encourage the chief going forward to look more broadly at diversity within the firefighter force.
Reach Belvedere and public-safety reporter Katherine Martine at 415-944-4627.