If Dave Wheeler wins a bitterly contested seat on the Loomis Town Council in today's election, he may have to choose between the elected post and his day job as chief of the Loomis fire district.
His political future could hinge on the state attorney general's office. Previous attorney general rulings show that fire chiefs and council seats are sometimes "incompatible offices," and Wheeler's political opponents have vowed to seek a ruling if he wins.
Under state code, Wheeler would automatically forfeit his job as chief of the Loomis Fire Protection District if he wins a council seat, and if the two offices are found incompatible.
But on Monday afternoon, Wheeler said he would not step down. He called the incompatibility issue a political ploy raised by opponents late in the campaign.
"My opposition will do anything and everything it can to make sure I don't get elected, and this is just another political maneuver," he said.
When considering a run for council, he said, he studied the candidate guide provided by Placer County election officials. His understanding, he said, was that because he isn't an elected fire official, there would be no conflict.
He said the Loomis Fire Protection District, which employs him, is independent from the town. And Loomis, he said, has three separate fire districts providing service.
"There are a lot of what-ifs, and it's premature to speculate," Wheeler said.
Lynda Gledhill, press secretary for the attorney general, said each case is individual and complex, so she would not say if this is a clear-cut case of incompatibility.
But she pointed to rulings that raise questions about Wheeler's ability to serve as a council member and district fire chief. One ruling in 2008 said the Ventura County fire chief and Ojai City Council member were incompatible offices, and another opinion from 1993 in Murrieta said that the chief of a special fire district and elected member of a city council may be incompatible.
The reason for the "incompatibility doctrine" is to eliminate "clashes of duties and loyalties," according to the state law. Past rulings have found that fire chiefs may be asked to weigh in on issues facing a town council, such as an extension of fire protection services.
Wheeler, who retired after 30 years as assistant fire chief in Alameda County, works about 20 hours a week as chief of the Loomis Fire Protection District, said district board President John Shearer.
He said Wheeler informed the board of his decision to run for council. Shearer said he doesn't see any conflict between the elected position and Wheeler's job at the fire district, which serves 13,000 Placer County residents.
Gary Liss, a Town Council incumbent and one of three candidates vying for two seats, said he spoke with Town Manager Rick Angelocci about the possible incompatibility in August when Wheeler filed his candidacy papers.
"I raised this with our town manager at the beginning of the campaign as an issue of concern," Liss said. He said Angelocci informed him that the matter had been referred to the town clerk.
Angelocci said he does not recall the conversation with Liss and could not say if he relayed the matter to the clerk.
"This is a political issue, not a town issue," Angelocci said.
Wheeler is in a pitched battle against slow-growth advocates on the council, including Liss. The third candidate is incumbent Rhonda Nelthorpe Morillas.
City planning commissioner Janet Thew, who has been researching the incompatibility rulings, said she would support getting an opinion from the attorney general if Wheeler wins a council seat.
Editor's note: This story was changed Nov. 6 to correct the third paragraph that begins "Under state code" to reflect the circumstances of how Wheeler would automatically forfeit his job as fire chief.