Near the end of the latest bitter debate over the closure of Fire Station 39 in west Pasadena, Councilman Terry Tornek lamented: “The neighborhood has lost confidence in us.”
But like others on the City Council, he accepted that the only solution at hand for the next couple of years was to put an ambulance crew in a rented house on a narrow side street and staff it 24/7.
“The takeaway from all this is some problems don’t have great solutions,” he said.
In the 10 months since City Manager Michael Beck dropped a bombshell at a news conference that six fire stations were so antiquated they needed $59 million in upgrades, and a seventh, Station 39, needed to be closed as a safety hazard, residents west of Arroyo Seco south of the Ventura (134) Freeway have gone without fire engines or paramedics located in their community.
To say that many of them — especially those who live near 159 Glen Summer Road, where the ambulance will soon be located — are unhappy is an understatement.
They have organized, gone to dozens of meetings, confronted city leaders, filed a long stream of public records requests and threatened to sue the city in what has become something of a case study of what happens when government disconnects with the people who pay the bills, who expect to be treated with respect and get the services they need.
My deepest belief as a journalist and community activist is this: In the 21st century, people are grown up enough to make decisions for themselves, or at least be part of the process. We don’t need patronizing officials to decide what’s good for us. We need a partnership based on mutual respect.
Last April, Beck called a news conference to announce that a seismic study completed the previous November showed that nearly all the city’s fire stations needed major upgrades and the oldest — Station 39, built in 1948 — was beyond repair.
“I tried to identify solutions, but I wasn’t able to,” he recalled. “I felt I’d be irresponsible to ask employees to come to work when I have a report on my desk that says that in a significant earthquake, the building could collapse in a pancake fashion, resulting in serious injury or death. I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Station 39 was closed without warning on the day of the press conference.
“It was a big mistake,” Beck acknowledged last week. “We called a press conference to make the decision public so that we could communicate to the community what we were doing, why we were doing it. We did it in a press conference instead of in a community meeting. We were talking to the community through the press. We weren’t talking to the community. I take full responsibility for that mistake. We’ve never recovered from that.”
Trust in City Hall was shaken. Fire and paramedic services are a life-and-death issue and there were no simple solutions.
Maybe Station 39 could be rebuilt over two or three years. Maybe it costs too much. Maybe it’s a possible historical landmark.
The city looked at 400 sites, went in-depth at more than 100 of them, drew layouts on several, moved forward on San Rafael School and a house nearby. All were unworkable or scrapped in the face of opposition.
The community — professionals, business people with incomes well above average — went crazy.
“We’re not respected. We’re very upset at the process,” said Dr. Ronald Paler, a resident of Glen Summer Drive and a leader of the effort to get full services restored within the area.
“We asked for an apple, a fire engine, and we’re being given an orange, an ambulance. The city manager is acting unilaterally to put an ambulance on our street at a rented house with a park on the corner. It’s unsafe. There are kids. There are cars parked on both sides of a narrow street.
“They ignored everyone who came to the council, ignored the laws for [environmental study] for a conditional-use permit. This has not been done in good faith. It’s sneaky. They used a lot of loopholes under the guise of public safety.”
Paler and many others don’t believe there will be no sirens and no speeding of the ambulance on their street, don’t believe the three-month review of how it’s working will be honest, don’t believe better sites will be sought, don’t believe the rebuilt station will be operational in two years.
They vow to be vigilant every step of the way and they just might sue.
For his part, Beck is frustrated. He believes his efforts to be transparent have been turned on their head and people need to “look at the facts, not the fear.”
“The best way I can put Humpty Dumpty back is provide them temporary service and get that darn station renovated as quickly as we can, and be there at the ribbon-cutting and have them say, ‘OK, I trust you now … I honestly don’t think it’s going away until we’re at the ribbon cutting.”
You can take it from me or learn it for yourself, but in this day and age, we either partner with each other as we muddle through what will be tough times, or we go to war and fight each other in a way that benefits no one.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.