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Fire Chief Phil Garcia to retire

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After serving the Valley for seven years, Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority Chief Phil Garcia is stepping aside.

According to Sonoma City Manager Carol Giovanatto, Garcia, who lives in Long Beach and has been shuttling back and forth since he was hired, grew weary of all the travel. “He’s tired of the commute,” said Giovanatto, “and he just became a new grandpa. He wants to spend more time with his family.”

Garcia, who is 64, took administrative leave and his exact departure date is unclear.

SVFRA Operations Division Chief Mark Freeman is serving as interim chief of the agency, which is governed by a Joint Powers Authority. The authority’s board is deciding whether to name Freeman to the position permanently.

Garcia came to the department in 2007 after serving as fire chief in Santa Ana for nearly five years. Prior to that, he worked through the ranks at the Culver City Fire Department for 28 years.

At a 2007 press conference, Garcia said he was looking forward to “becoming a part of the community,” although he never actually lived here. His administrative abilities were highlighted when he took on his new role in the Valley, with comments that he would focus mostly on the operational side of firefighting. While serving as Sonoma’s fire chief, Garcia kept his primary home in Southern California and commuted to the Sonoma area.

In 2002, through a Joint Powers Agreement, the Sonoma Fire Department and Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District merged to create Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority. The goal was to form a unified entity to eliminate duplication of staff and resources, reduce costs, increase coverage and shorten response time to the combined service area of 33,000 people and 31.5 square miles. By general consensus, all those goals have been met.

Garcia was specifically tasked with completing a Standards of Response Coverage report, necessary for managing the authority’s performance on emergency calls and telling administrators how long it takes Fire/Med crews to respond to fire and medical emergencies. Those times are then compared to national response time standards to provide an ongoing evaluation tool to measure the JPA’s performance.

That performance has generally been lauded, but administration of the authority did spark some tension between city and district factions. At a 2008 meeting of the Joint Powers Authority (the City of Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon Fire District board), then-mayor Joanne Sanders criticized the JPA for its lack of communication in governing the fire rescue authority. Sanders noted her biggest concern was a “lack of respect” for the city’s partnership and cited several instances where the city had been left out of the decision-making process.

Those instances, she said, included the supervision and performance review of Garcia, which was supposed to be handled by both district board members and the city manager, but ended up only being handled by the district. Sanders also said Garcia did not consult the city manager for a salary increase, but rather went directly to a district board member.

When Garcia joined SVFRA, his salary was $118,000. In 2009, his salary – including pension contributions and medical benefits – totaled almost $159,000.

A 2009 article in the Orange County Register about the top three Orange County agencies with retirees who receive six-figure pensions stated Garcia received the highest of 57 retirees, at just under $174,000 annually. Garcia also receives a pension from Culver City.

Giovanatto praised Garcia’s efforts in merging the two fire/rescue entities more completely and for establishing reliable response standards. “we’re going to miss him,” she said.

Garcia could not be reached for comment.