BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury, in a report released yesterday, asserts that the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has been buying properties without a plan and has been receiving donations from Facebook, creating a conflict of interest.
Both district Board President Chuck Bernstein and Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman that funds from Facebook were the end result of negotiations between the district and the company through the two entity’s lawyers. Schapelhouman said this is because the district had felt shorted by Menlo Park’s negotiating process with large developers before, so adopted a “go-it alone” way to negotiate with developers.
Facebook is not the only developer to pay fees to the district. David Bohannon and Stanford have also paid fees related to their large projects.
However, the civil grand jury called the fees paid by developers to the district “donations,” and expressed concern that the money given to the district by developers would mean the district would give preferential treatment to the donors.
“Our belief is that if a development comes in and generates needs that are above and beyond what the taxes will pay, they should be paid by the developers,” Bernstein said. “If we’re not making developers pay and put the burden on our taxpayers, then it seems like favoritism.”
The civil grand jury’s report is non-binding. The civil grand jury is composed of residents who investigate government operations under the authority of the Superior Court.
The grand jury criticized the district’s spending of $21.9 million on five properties, and in particular the $4.6 million it spent to buy a house at 28 Alemendral Ave., next to Fire Station 3 at 32 Alemendral.
The grand jury faulted the property purchases saying the district doesn’t have a written strategic plan to grapple with growth in the area.
However, Schapelhouman pointed out that much of the property acquisition in the past year has been strategic, since the properties purchased neighbor existing fire stations, which will eventually be demolished and expanded onto the new properties.
The only property bought not near a fire station was a 28,000-square-foot warehouse in East Palo Alto for its National Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and other special operations.
The report said the district needs a strategic plan to address growth in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park.
Bernstein pointed out that the fire board’s strategic planning committee has been meeting nearly every month this year, in hopes to have a plan soon.
“We have realized the magnitude of the problem and we’re getting to work on it,” Bernstein said.
Schapelhouman said in response to the growth in the area, thanks to companies like Facebook, more firefighters have been added to the district’s east side, and the district has added response vehicles stationed at Station 2 in East Palo Alto and Station 77 in east Menlo Park.
The district’s elected board will be discussing the grand jury’s report at its August meeting, Bernstein said.