By ALEX MacLEAN
The Union Democrat
Three candidates are vying for two positions up for grabs on the Columbia Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
Incumbents Mary O’Hearn and Guy Emery are being challenged by longtime firefighter Paul Waite Jr. The top two vote-getters in the Nov. 6 election will earn a two-year board term.
The district consists of roughly 700 parcel owners who each pay an assessment of $80 per year for fire services. It rents its fire station on Jackson Street that is manned around the clock by a staff made up of nine volunteer firefighters, a paid chief and captain.
Columbia firefighters cover a one-square-mile area that includes a school, an airport and a state park. They are also the designated first responders to medical aid and fire calls in Cold Springs.
The small but busy district has been looking to expand its coverage area and hopefully pass an assessment to bring in additional funding, said Columbia Fire Chief Jim Helms.
Helms explained the district operates on an annual budget around $55,000, which likely won’t be enough to cover a plethora of costs on the horizon such as replacing some of the department’s near-obsolete gear.
The district also recently had to deal with two separate scandals involving current or former employees.
Former Columbia Fire Chief Randall Nickley, 50, of Sonora, was accused in August of embezzling funds and paying himself stipends for service calls he didn’t respond to.
Earlier in the summer, firefighter Cody Anderson, 18, of Altaville, was arrested by Cal Fire investigators at the station in connection with suspected arson fires in the Angels Camp area.
Waite said one of the reasons he decided to run for the board was from public concern over the allegations.
One of the changes Waite would suggest if elected would be for the board to expand the number of directors from three to five by amending its bylaws.
“It would give us more accountability to the community by having more members involved in it,” he said.
Waite is a full-time fire captain and training officer at Twain Harte Fire and Rescue, but worked as assistant fire chief in charge of operations at Columbia Fire Protection District from 1989 to 2000.
One of his reasons for leaving was when the district cut its contract with Tuolumne County, a partnership he would like to see reopened.
“I think it brings a wealth of not only experience with that partnership but also additional training and a maintenance program,” he said. “It really worked back in the years I served there.”
O’Hearn is the longest serving director in the race, having been on the board for the past 20 years. She’s lived in Columbia since childhood and remembers riding around on district fire engines when she was young.
“I don’t want to see it die,” she said. “I would like to see our district expanded and, eventually, have a paid fire department.”
O’Hearn said her years of experience and familiarity with the both the area and the department — she was also a volunteer firefighter for five years — makes her the right person for the job.
She noted skills that she acquired over a 20-year career in purchasing for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, from which she is now retired. The district’s board of directors oversees major purchases and gives direction to the district’s staff.
“I enjoy doing it for my community,” she said. “It’s just a real personal thing for me because I’ve lived here almost all my life.”
Although never having worked in the fire service, Emery, a field representative for a pest control company, is seeking his third-term as a director.
Emery said director Stan Steiner, who is not up for reelection this year, first approached him in 2007 to fill a vacant position on the board so they could have a quorum. Since that time, he’s come to find it a rewarding job.
“We have a very small district, so there wasn’t a lot of possibilities for people to do the job,” he explained. “I figured that I would continue because I’m proud of it and enjoy it.”
The most recent allegations against Nickley stem from the board not having appropriate oversight of expense transactions. Emery said that issue has since been rectified.
Emery also would like to see the district expanded beyond the one-square-mile coverage area, which he said would help bring in additional revenue for needs.
“Expanding our district will increase the amount of revenue we get and hopefully help us build a new firehouse, which will help us better serve the community,” he said.