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Reports calls for French Camp Fire to consolidate

The San Joaquin County Grand Jury thinks that it is past time for the French Camp McKinley Fire District to be consolidated with a neighboring agency. 

In a scathing report released on Thursday, the grand jury questioned the French Camp McKinley Fire District’s ability to provide essential services to important county complexes like the San Joaquin County Jail and San Joaquin General Hospital and recommended that the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors conduct an independent review to determine the feasibility of the ongoing service arrangement.

After a tumultuous year which led to a shakeup of the independent district’s top brass – including the dismissal of some personnel and the extended leave of Fire Chief Fred Manding – the report details a culture of backbiting, ongoing litigation, and generally poor morale coupled with inadequate financial management, financial misconduct, and virtually nonexistent board oversight. 

The toxic culture in the workplace alone, the report states, has cost the district more than $400,000 in lawsuits with several more currently pending. In a table that outlines the number of grievances that have been filed and investigations that have been conducted over the past six years, French Camp – which only has 16 firefighters – has had at least 12 and was second only to Stockton, which employs 179 firefighters, which only had 14. 

The Lathrop Manteca Fire District, for example, which has more than double the number of firefighters as French Camp McKinley, only had one grievance filed while the Ripon, Escalon, and Mokelumne Fire Districts had none. 

Part of what allowed that culture to exist, the report stated, was little to no oversight by the district’s Board of Directors – whose opinions of the status of the workplace varied drastically. One board member that was interviewed, according to the report, estimated that there were between 15 and 20 grievances that were filed over the last five years, while another estimated the number between 2 and 3.

Part of the issue, according to the grand jury, is that the district doesn’t have a clear policy manual to set workplace expectations of the employees that work there. While French Camp McKinley did purchase a policy template from a private, for-profit company in 2016 that was supposed to be customized to fit the unique needs of the agency, that work never appears to have been completed. 

And since “significant ongoing changes to the California Fire Code require updates to policies and procedures as statutes, case law, and regulations change,” the need to “regularly” update the Policy Manual would also “communicate clear and concise policy guidance to employees,” according to the grand jury’s report. 

Other findings include:

uPast investigations into personnel issues determined that the district had a very high likelihood of facing “severe litigation” due to the “actions of individuals employed by the district and the inaction of Board members in resolving employee issues.”

uA Battalion Chief’s behaviors warranted a “serious written reprimand and the recommended disciplinary action was not implemented.”

uAlleged final misconduct by District employees was “identified by the Interim Fire Chief and confirmed by the County Auditor-Controller’s office” and may end up costing the District over $100,000. The entire situation went “undetected by the Board of Directors Finance Subcommittee.”

The grand jury also claimed that inadequate testing procedures within the department allowed for less qualified candidates to be promoted into positions that “require them to make decisions based on qualifications, training, and experience” – something that jeopardized public safety.

The ensuing fallout of the report could spell an end to the independent district as it now known if the recommendations are adopted by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and the agencies that are under its control. 

The report clearly calls into question the district’s ability to adequately protect some of San Joaquin County’s most vital assets, noting that the “absence of steady leadership, excessive turnover of personnel, and financial instability” means that their ability to serve those facilities and the constituents is “questionable.”

In the report’s conclusion, the grand jury pulled no punches on what its findings mean for the district or the people that they are sworn to serve. 

“French Camp McKinley Fire District has been struggling on multiple fronts for the last decade and is currently in disarray. Continual turnover of the Fire Chief position and failed oversight by the District’s Board of Directors has exposed the District to expensive investigations and litigation,” the conclusion reads. “Although the Interim Fire Chief has made progress in his short tenure at the District, the process required to transform the District into a fully functional, efficient Fire District will take many years at best. The constituents of this District, and the hard-working firefighters that serve them, deserve better.”

And efforts to move towards consolidation are already underway. 

The neighboring Lathrop Manteca Fire District has already publicly expressed interest in pushing for a takeover after a flap over who got to provide service to the Flying J Truck Stop on Roth Road resulted in a sliver of the City of Lathrop falling under the jurisdiction of French Camp McKinley despite the fact that it doesn’t have a hazardous materials program in place to handle a major spill – something that the grand jury report reiterated. 

While the neighboring districts have long had a working relationship, tensions over the decision by LAFCO to create an island in the City of Lathrop – the first time since the city was incorporated in 1989 that Lathrop Manteca didn’t provide fire service for all property inside of Lathrop’s city limit – led to administrators at Lathrop Manteca requesting access to the district’s financials to determine the financial feasibility of combining jurisdictions. 

The French Camp McKinley Fire District will have 90 days from the receipt of the report to submit responses to all of the report’s findings and will largely have until the end of the year to meet the recommendations. The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors will also have to respond to the recommendation that they study whether French Camp McKinley is the most viable option to protect the county’s vital assets moving forward. 

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.