Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: There’s only one solution to the big mess in Loomis

If you want to see the flaws of special districts and the foibles of small-town politics, look no further than Loomis and one Dave Wheeler.

Wheeler is on the Town Council. He’s also chief of the local fire district, which some residents say is a clear conflict of interest.

Already the center of controversy, Wheeler is feeling more heat after CalPERS alleged that he has been illegally “double dipping” by working for the Loomis Fire Protection District while collecting a pension from another fire district. At the same time, with the resignation last month of Mayor Walt Scherer, Wheeler, as mayor pro tem, is in line to become the next mayor on Dec. 10.

To put the town’s best interests first, Wheeler must take two steps. He has to pick one job or the other. And he should turn down the mayor’s post.

Publicly, Wheeler has given no indication that he’s willing to do either. In an email to The Bee’s editorial board, he said Friday that he’s confident that the fire district will win its appeal of the CalPERS audit. He also insisted that the town and fire district are separate agencies and that the actions of one have no connection with the other.

It’s possible that Wheeler won’t have any choice about giving up one of his posts. The office of Attorney General Kamala Harris is reviewing a “quo warranto” action filed by a citizens group, which challenges the legality of Wheeler’s dual role. The activists argue that as fire chief, he has power that other council members don’t have because the fire district’s jurisdiction overlaps with the town’s, and it must sign off on any new development.

Wheeler, who was elected to the Town Council in 2012, has been chief of the fire district since 2007 after retiring from the Alameda County Fire Department. He has received an average annual salary of $61,000, plus a pension of $139,338 a year, according to state records.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System says that’s not legal. It flagged the apparent violation after the Loomis fire district joined the pension system in 2010. The fire district responded that Wheeler was exempt from double-dipping rules because he was a temporary employee; CalPERS rightly rejected that excuse.

The fire district is still fighting to keep Wheeler, claiming that a new, full-time chief would cost much more. Meanwhile, if CalPERS decides that Wheeler must reimburse the system, he could owe more than two years of pension payments.

Until the audit was released last week under a public records request filed by the citizens group, this dispute was under wraps. California has far too many of these small special districts, which collect taxes but operate without city or county supervision and do not get near enough scrutiny.

Now, the fire district and Wheeler must face the reality that he cannot be chief and a Town Council member and represent both constituencies fully and fairly. If they won’t make the right decision, the attorney general should make it for them.