City Manager Investigates Fire Station Closure in Berkeley, California

City Manager Phil Kamlarz assured the City Council Tuesday night that Fire Station 7, the hills station, will remain open for the next week while he investigates why it was shut down last Wednesday in apparent contravention of Fire Chief Debra Pryor's promise to the council.

On June 28, in response to a question from Councilwoman Betty Olds, who represents the hills, Pryor assured the lawmakers that Station 7 would be exempt from the city's new rotating station closure plan for the duration of the fire season, which typically lasts until November.

But last Wednesday, Olds got a phone call from one of her constituents, who said Station 7 was closed.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I thought maybe he didn't knock on the door loudly enough. So I went over to check for myself; and sure enough, it was shut tighter than a drum."

The station remained closed until 5 p.m., when it was re-opened after city officials were inundated with phone calls from angry residents.

Fire protection is a critical concern in the hills, which are at constant risk because of the abundant vegetation and narrow, winding roads that limit access for fire fighting equipment and escape routes for the residents. That's what happened in 1991, when a fire killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in the Berkeley and Oakland hills.

Pryor was on vacation and unavailable for comment. On Thursday, Olds and two of her council colleagues, Laurie Capitelli and Gordon Wozniak, met with Deputy Fire Chief David Orth, who was running the department in Pryor's absence.

"We were shocked to find that the plan called for Station 7 to be shut down again on Friday, and that two engine or truck companies in the city would be out of service most of the time throughout the fire season," Olds said. "Needless to say, this is not what we were told two weeks ago."

At that point, Kamlarz, also caught by surprise, stepped in and overruled the Friday closure order for Station 7.

In the meantime, the lawmakers are scrambling to find the money to restore fire service to the level they thought they had been promised June 28. Mayor Tom Bates estimated the additional tab at $300,000, which will probably come out of the city's $8 million reserve fund. That issue will come before the City Council at next week's session.

At the same time, Kamlarz will report the results of his investigation into who is to blame for the apparent misrepresentation about the closure of Station 7.

"This is very serious matter," said Bates. "We have to be able to trust our staff to provide us with honest information. This gives rise to a whole host of questions. Was it sabotage? Was the misrepresentation intentional? Did we ask the right questions? Or was it just a misunderstanding? A lot o times they talk in bureacratese, so it might just have gotten by us."

The good news is that the problem will go away in about six months. As part of the fiscal 2005-2006 budget, the council authorized the Fire Department to hire 12 new firefighters, eliminating the chronic short staffing that led to the rotating station closure plan. The new firefighters are scheduled to finish their training by the end of the year.

In other council action, the lawmakers spent most of the marathon session on what Bates called "the highlight of the evening" -- a turf war between the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission that could determine the future of Berkeley's historic buildings.

Berkeley has the stiffest landmarks ordinance in the state -- so rigorous, it's in violation of the state's Permit Streamlining Act, which says an up or down decision must be made within a specific time frame.

Acting on orders from the City Council, the Landmarks Preservation Commission drafted a revision to the ordinance that would bring it into line with state law. But when the Planning Commission made further changes that preservationists charged were too favorable to developers, the Landmarks Preservation Commission dug in its heels at a special meeting June 27 and rescinded its original recommendations, refusing to assent to any change at all.

After a marathon public comment session that lasted almost to midnight, the lawmakers decided the matter was too complicated to make a decision now.

Another hearing is scheduled for September.

The council also took stands on several public policy issues. Among them:

Establishing penalty fees for late payments by landlords to the Residential Housing Safety Program.

Supporting striking workers at Doten Honda on Shattuck Avenue.

Endorsing a state law to lower the voting age to 17.

Calling for an investigation into the Downing Street memos, which allegedly accuse President Bush of cooking the books before the Iraq invasion.

Opposing several of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's upcoming ballot proposals, including mid-term reapportionment of the state Legislature, increasing the waiting period before teachers can get tenure, and requiring individual consent from public employees before their union dues can be spent on political campaigns.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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