Tuesday's Thornton Rural Fire District board election appears to be a referendum on whether the small fire district should merge with the larger neighboring Woodbridge fire district.
In Thornton's first contested fire district election in 28 years, seven candidates are seeking the two available board seats on the five-member board. They are incumbents Rich Edwards and Bill Stokes, plus challengers Steve Crouch, Evan Franklin, Mary Grundman, Michelle Terra and Frank Yoka.
Franklin, Grundman and Yoka didn't return numerous calls this week from the News-Sentinel.
The lone polling place will be the Barber Branch Library at Walnut Grove and Thornton roads. It will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Unlike most local districts, Thornton Fire elections are held during odd-numbered years. For the past 28 years the number of candidates has not exceeded available seats.
The potential merger with Woodbridge is the driving issue. Some challengers say they are concerned that Stokes and Edwards support a merger with Woodbridge that could result in Thornton's only fire station closing its doors.
Edwards and Stokes, who are running for re-election, maintain that they have not taken a position on merging with Woodbridge, nor do they support closing the Thornton station.
"We want guarantees (from Woodbridge) of 24-hour coverage in Thornton with at least one manned engine," Edwards said.
Concerns over merger
Edwards and Stokes proposed beginning exploratory merger talks with Woodbridge in July 2002 with the opposition of Fire Chief Chris McGranahan and several paid and volunteer firefighters.
At a fire board meeting on Aug. 15, 2002, Stokes and Edwards excluded McGranahan from participating in their meetings with Woodbridge, much to the dismay of McGranahan and firefighters attending the meeting.
A proposal to seek a merger has yet to be presented to the full Thornton fire board. However, a proposed agreement has been drafted for public review.
The Thornton Firefighters Association, fearing that its station would close if the merger took place, have endorsed Terra and Crouch.
Firefighters Association President Nick Odgers accuses Stokes and Edwards of misrepresenting Thornton residents by stating that the Thornton station would be staffed by paid firefighters.
A proposed merger agreement developed by Stokes, Edwards and Woodbridge fire board members Tom Alexander and Mike Manna states that only volunteer firefighters would staff the Thornton station. However, the Woodbridge station at Flag City, which has two paid firefighters, would respond to all Thornton calls, the agreement proposal says.
"I'm looking to keep the fire station open, that's what I'm trying to do," Crouch said. "Keep the station open and keep it in Thornton because we're talking about response times here. With response times, you're talking about life and death. You're talking about your house burning down or a small fire."
With Universal Forest Products recently opening its doors on Kyle Road, Crouch said a nearby fire station is critically important because of the fires that can be generated by the lumber stored at the plant.
Paid staffing a priority
Terra agreed that it's important to keep the Thornton station in operation with paid personnel. She said she opposes Thornton becoming an all-volunteer station, as stated under the Woodbridge proposal.
Stokes and Edwards maintain that they don't want the Thornton station to close any more than Terra, Crouch or Thornton's firefighters.
"In no way would myself as a director, landowner and a business person want that station closed," Stokes said. "I have never said that station would be closed, and they say I said that. We've been working to make that a better station."
Edwards said that the specifics of the merger proposal have not been hammered out, including the part that states that Thornton would be staffed only by volunteers.
"That's not acceptable to Bill and me," Edwards said. "We want a staffed station (with paid personnel)."
Odgers, a Thornton firefighter about nine years, accuses the current board for not being forward-thinking and of trying to increase district revenues.
"Thornton has been kept in the past," Odgers said. "They are not too willing to purchase equipment for the fire department or plan for the future.
"The association wants candidates willing to work with the association and the chief," Odgers said. "These board members are not working with the chief."
Edwards replied that the fire district is constrained by its small budget. With a district budget of about $219,000, labor costs are about $100,000 alone, Edwards said. That leaves $119,000 for training, paying off a loan for a water tanker, maintenance and equipment.
McGranahan is a part-time chief, and Assistant Chief Vince Tafuri is essentially the training officer, Edwards said.
"Volunteers think the directors should give them a blank check," Edwards said. "We can't do that."
Odgers, the firefighters association president, said that Terra and Crouch "are willing to bring us up to standards in equipment and training. They are willing to look for money through grants. They're willing to ensure the funding is there. I'm sure hoping it will be a breath of fresh air with personnel."
Pushing for a new election schedule
Crouch, 47, who has lived more than 12 years in Thornton, is a business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers in Sacramento. His wife, Gaylene Crouch, is a New Hope School District trustee in Thornton.
As a union representative with a degree in labor relations, Crouch said he can use his skills to prevent some of the personnel problems that has plagued the fire district.
Crouch said that McGranahan is an excellent chief and that the district is applying for grants to get a new fire engine and building.
Edwards, 51, has lived in Thornton since 1992 and served on the board since 1999. He owns Windwalker Security, based in Acampo.
Stokes, 40, is a large vintner with grapes throughout Thornton, west Lodi and Acampo areas. He is a director for the Woodbridge Irrigation District, whose boundaries include Thornton.
Stokes has lived his entire life in the Thornton area. He has served on the fire board for four years and been a board member or volunteer in Thornton for 22 years.
Terra, a forensic scientist and photographer, moved with her family to Thornton about five years ago to raise her family in a small country setting while working in the Sacramento area.
"It is time for a change in thinking," Terra said. "It's time to ask how can the department be made better, what does the department need to maintain quality and timely service to the Thornton community."
Terra also said she would like the fire district to change its board elections to even-numbered years so that more people would vote.
"It is my understanding that in previous years only the incumbent would apply for the position or the seat was appointed, which may be due to the fact that the election is held in odd years," Terra said.
"I feel that holding the Thornton Rural Fire District Board of Directors election on odd years is a disservice to the community," she said.
Terra also wants to improve teamwork
"It takes the teamwork of the firefighters, fire chief and board of directors to run the department effectively," Terra said. "I believe we will make a good team."