Fire Chief Veerkamp stepping down
El Dorado County native plans to run for Sweeney’s District 3 supervisor seat
El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Brian Veerkamp gave his “90-day notice” during the Dec. 9 fire board meeting, citing tentative plans to run for Jack Sweeney’s District 3 county supervisor seat opening up in 2012. He will leave the department in March.
Newly elected 2011 fire board President Greg Durante broke the awkward silence that followed Veerkamp’s announcement with, “I’ve been here for eight minutes and look how much I’ve gotten done already.”
Freshman Director Lou Barber, sworn in an hour earlier, jokingly asked if the board was allowed to refuse the chief’s request.
The good-natured jokes hinted at the sometimes strained relationship between the board and its chief, especially with regard to fiscal matters. Veerkamp also ran afoul of the firefighters’ union over overtime expenditures and other personnel matters.
Veerkamp, 52, promised to assist the district in finding his successor, and encouraged the board to consider his staff. “We’ve got a lot of capable people here.”
The next in line would be Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb, followed by Division Chief Brad Ballenger. Battalion Chiefs Dave Roberts, Dwight Piper and John Niehues could also throw their hats in the ring. The board is free to consider both outside and inside candidates.
Outgoing Board President Jim Hartley thanked Veerkamp for his efforts. “There’s been plenty of challenges and you’ve always risen to the occasion.”
“This was not an easy decision,” said Veerkamp. “Lori and I felt the time was right.”
From a financial perspective his timing was ideal. Veerkamp recently became fully vested in the Public Employees Retirement System and hopes to take advantage of the voluntary exit incentive program, implemented last year in cooperation with the firefighter’s union in an attempt to reduce staff. The incentive is currently $75,000, and applies to any firefighter or administrator old enough to retire.
Veerkamp served as chief for three-and-a-half years, following 14-and-a-half years as former Chief Larry Fry’s assistant chief.
“Larry taught me so much, and this district created the opportunity for me to do the things I want and for that I’ll be forever grateful,” said Veerkamp.
Veerkamp also earned a countywide reputation for leadership on fire and ambulance issues during his tenure as chief, playing high profile roles in the Joint Powers Authority that controls ambulance service on the county’s Western Slope and in the Chief’s Association that’s fighting for the survival of underfunded rural fire districts.
In September Veerkamp and Rescue Fire Chief Tom Keating proposed a merger of rural fire districts with the El Dorado Hills Fire District as part of a complex consolidation plan that would allow the rural districts to retain their names and their autonomy while leveraging state funding benefits the El Dorado Hills district enjoys.
The next consolidation meeting is scheduled at 7 p.m. on Jan. 24 at the Fireman’s Hall in Diamond Springs. The public is invited.
Veerkamp, who lives in Placerville, plans to remain involved, even in retirement. “With time on my hands I’d like to see this issue through,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to increase and improve fire service in the county.”
For his part, Veerkamp insists his disagreements with the board, and the union that’s become increasingly influential in electing, it are simply “differences in vision.”
“My intent was always to be fiscally conservative,” he said in an interview. “You don’t have to look too far to see that the state’s not done (raiding local government coffers).
“I’ve just tried to protect the district’s bank account,” he said. “That’s where I got into trouble.”
Complicating matters, four grievances against the district were filed by firefighters in the last year-and-a-half, two resulting in extended spells of paid administrative leave.
If Veerkamp’s political aspirations succeed, he’ll become the second county supervisor to come up through the El Dorado Hills Fire Department recently. Former fire board director John Knight took his seat as the District 1 supervisor after a successful 2008 campaign.
“Coming down here (from his native Placerville) was a great move for me,” said Veerkamp. “I like to think this community benefited as well.”
The fire department has always been active in the community, but Veerkamp, an active Rotarian and frequent participant in community events in and outside the fire service area, maintained a higher public profile than his predecessors.
“Larry and I shared a vision of community service that extended outside the basic fire and ambulance service,” he said. “If you call us we show up. We’ve fixed washer hoses, fished squirrels out of chimneys and killed lots of rattlesnakes.”
Veerkamp recalled firefighters freeing a deer stuck on a fence, and when one resident required medical assistance while working with wet concrete the firefighters stuck around and finished the job.
“That’s what people see, not the behind the scenes stuff,” said Veerkamp.
During his post-announcement interview, Veerkamp seemed as proud of his 14-year service on the Camino School Board as he was of his accomplishments in fire service.
He said he also looks forward to spending more time with his daughter and 4-month-old granddaughter in Reno, another daughter in Fresno and an uncle in Montana, where he enjoys hunting and fishing.
Veerkamp and his wife Lori recently got involved with Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Project, a planned Japanese cultural center on the site of the first Japanese settlement in the United States. It subsequently became the Veerkamp ranch, owned by Brian’s grandfather, and later managed by another branch of the family, led by Brian’s cousin Phil Veerkamp, who recently sold it to the American River Conservancy.
As a young man, Veerkamp wanted to be a lawyer. He had a business degree and two years of law school under his belt when he was asked to sign on as a volunteer firefighter for the city of Placerville. He continued in law school at night while working construction during the day for the next two busy years before taking a full-time firefighter position.
The job paid $900 per month, he recalled. To make ends meet he continued to work construction for his brother, Doug Veerkamp, between shifts for the next nine years.
He was promoted to battalion chief in 1991. By then he’d given up law school, and finally put down the construction work. Two years later Larry Fry tapped him as assistant chief in El Dorado Hills, which had two stations and just seven paid staff at the time.
Veerkamp’s supervisorial aspirations are consistent with a long standing interest in local politics, and desire to be a positive force, especially in challenging times, he said.
A confirmed Republican and fiscal conservative, Veerkamp said he’s running for supervisor “to bring some faith back to the process of government,” and believes money plays a large part of the problem. “How can you be objective if you’ve taken money from people that are affected by your decisions,” he asked, hinting at an eventual stance on campaign contributions.