Atwater will look at firefighting contract again

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 13, 2013 

— The city's Cal Fire contract will soon be up for renewal, and one councilman's association with the department won't keep him from having a say in the matter when it comes to a vote.

For the past year and a half, the Atwater City Council has entertained the idea of canceling its California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention contract and bringing back a city-run fire department.

A three-member voting bloc on the council chose to draft a notice of termination to Cal Fire in late 2011 and continues studying the potential benefits of a city-run department while negotiating with Cal Fire.

After uproars from the public and Cal Fire, the two sides eventually found middle ground and extended the contract.

That contract is under review again and could soon return to the council for approval, but this time, former Councilman Gary Frago's been replaced by freshman Councilman Larry Bergman, eliminating the voting bloc that pushed the idea of bringing back a city-run fire department.

Bergman, a Cal Fire captain, worked in the department's Atwater station before being elected to the City Council in November. Since October, he's worked at the station in Livingston.

During a meeting this week, Bergman said concerns have been raised about whether it would be a conflict of interest if he voted on issues concerning Cal Fire.

Late last month, Bergman got two letters — one from City Attorney Tom Terpstra and one from the Fair Political Practices Commission — stating that he can vote on Cal Fire issues. The letters state such votes wouldn't be conflicts of interest because he now works in the Livingston station and doesn't directly benefit from the Atwater contract.

Bergman, who has lived in Atwater since 2011 and has worked for Cal Fire since 1988, said he didn't expect to end up voting on Cal Fire issues when he ran for office.

Although he was told it wouldn't be a conflict if he did, Bergman said he got the letters from Terpstra and the FPPC to make sure.

Bergman said his affiliation with Cal Fire won't sway his decision when it comes to fire protection services, noting that if a city-run fire department turned out to be the safest and most cost-efficient option for the city, he'd back it.

"I am not supporting anybody but the citizens of this city," he said. "They are who I'm making my commitment to."

Mayor Joan Faul said management will soon start negotiating the terms of a new agreement with Cal Fire and would like to cut back the contract amount by about $360,000.

The city spends about $1.9 million a year on fire services.

The city's contract with Cal Fire expires June 30 and a new proposal is expected to be brought before the City Council in March.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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