Big Bear Community Services District Taps Eagleson As Director Amid Fire Chief Contretemps

With one of its members abstaining, the four-fifths strength Big Bear Community Services District Board of Directors on Monday September 18 voted 2-to-1 to appoint Mike Eagleson to fill its ranks.
Eagleson was among five residents of Big Bear City who applied to replace former director John Green, who died July 25.
In addition to Eagleson, JoKay Rowe, Belinda-Joanna Masse Rainwater, Madison Jackson and Brian Erickson had sought elevation to the board.
Instead of holding an election, the board, then consisting of John Russo, Bob Rowe, Larry Walsh and Al Ziegler, on August 7 determined it would, with the guidance of Big Bear Community Services District General Manager Glenn Jacklin, replace Green by appointment.
Because JoKay Rowe is Bob Rowe’s wife, Bob Rowe recused himself from participating in the decision.
The 38.45-square mile Big Bear community is home to 17,784 residents. There is some confusion, however about jurisdiction issues in Big Bear, as it consists of two entities, the City of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City. Despite its name, Big Bear City is not a municipality but rather an unincorporated county area and a designated census place. Big Bear Lake is an incorporated municipality. Despite its status as an actual city, Big Bear Lake is smaller than Big Bear City both in terms of land area and population. The former is 6.42 square miles and has 5,046 inhabitants. The latter is an expansive 32.03 square miles with 12,738 residents. While both qualify as rustic mountain districts, the more compact Big Bear Lake is slightly more urbanized and densely populated.The Big Bear City Community Services District oversees the delivery of water, sewer service and trash service to the county.
The Big Bear City Community Services District board members are directors on the Big Bear Fire Authority Board along with all five Big Bear Lake City Council members. The Big Bear Fire Authority Board members are the Big Bear fire chief’s political masters. The fire chief oversees the Big Bear Fire Department.
Eagleson, who began with the Foothill Fire District in 1986 and then retired at the rank of captain from that agency in 1994 after it had transitioned into being the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department, was endorsed for the board appointment by the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association, which is the bargaining unit for the Big Bear Fire Department’s firemen.
That endorsement was a key factor in the selection of Eagleson to succeed Green. The specter hanging over the Big Bear Community, the Big Bear Fire Authority, the Big Bear Community Services District and, most recently, the appointment of Eagleson, is the personage of Big Bear Fire Chief Jeff Willis. Willis began working with the Big Bear City Fire Department as a fresh-faced kid in 1984. In January 2008, he became the youngest fire chief in the history of the Big Bear City Fire Department. At that time, there were no fewer than five separate fire agencies in the Big Bear community and its environs. The Big Bear City Fire Department and the Big Bear Lake Fire Protection District, i.e., the municipal fire department, were the two largest entities among those five. In July 2011, both the Big Bear City Community Services District Board and the Big Bear City Council acquiesced in the Big Bear Lake Fire Department, simultaneously employing Willis as its fire chief while he was yet heading the Big Bear City Fire Department. Thereafter, Willis divided his time between Station 281 in Big Bear Lake and Station 282 in Big Bear City, Station 283 in Sugar Loaf and Station 284 in Big Bear City, with occasional sojourns to the paid call stations in Boulder Bay and Moonridge.
In 2012, the Big Bear Lake City Council and the Big Bear City Community Services District Board of Directors committed to the merger of the Big Bear Lake Fire Department and the Big Bear City Fire Department under an arrangement that included the creation of the Big Bear Fire Authority Board.
Despite difficulties, Willis navigated that merger with aplomb, which is widely recognized by mountain residents, the community services district leadership, the politicians and city staff in Big Bear Lake, professional firefighters with other local and county agencies and the firefighters employed by what is now referred to as the Big Bear Fire Department.
Despite their respect for Willis’s accomplishment with the merger, the department’s firefighters in large measure over the last decade have grown disenchanted with him.
Last spring, the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association approached Green, who at that time was the chairman of the Big Bear City Community Services District Board of Directors, asking him to agendize a meeting in which Willis’s performance would be a topic for open discussion. When Green less than two months before his death refused that request, the association responded with a vote of no confidence against Willis.
According to the association, Willis has engaged in “political posturing, leveraging, and extreme operational neglect… over the past eight years.” Willis, according to the firefighters, “has repeatedly misrepresented the labor force’s wishes and has degraded our reputation to the board to fulfill his own contractual negotiations. Since the merger in 2012, we have not replaced a piece of firefighting apparatus. The Big Bear Fire Department does not have a working budget for apparatus replacement. Chief Willis prioritizes a bloated administration while running a budget deficit without regard to public safety. Our budget shortfalls are the clearest example of incompetent leadership.”
In addition, according to the firefighters, “Chief Willis has consistently failed on his planned operational directives. Additionally, we still have two-person engines, an unsustainable staffing model and we are ignored on basic labor needs. Most egregiously, he repeatedly prioritizes administration and political issues over our ability to protect the community.”
It is within that context that the board appointed Eagleson, a former Rancho Cucamonga resident and someone considered to be sympathetic to labor and workplace issues. In addition to being a retired fireman pulling a $46,748.83 annual pension based upon his 7.87 years of active service, Eagleson obtained a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Science degree from the University of La Verne, a Master of Dispute Resolution degree from the Struass Institute at Pepperdine University School of Law and a Juris Doctor degree from Trinity Law School.
After his retirement as a firefighter, Eagleson was hired by Jim Erwin, then the president of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Employees Benefit Association to serve as that organization’s executive director, with the consent of the association’s board of directors. Known by its acronym SEBA, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Employees Benefit Association is the union representing sheriff’s deputies, corporals, detectives, sergeants and lieutenants, as well as district attorney’s office investigators, probation department officers, probation department supervisors, coroner investigators, specialized fire officers and welfare fraud investigators in San Bernardino County.
Eagleson outlasted Erwin as an element of the bulwark at SEBA. In 2017 he testified as a prosecution witness against Erwin when the former union boss was tried in the Colonies Political Corruption case.
Eagleson now works as a labor law attorney and doubles as a professor at the University of La Verne’s School of Business and Public Management, where he teaches collective bargaining, management negotiations, business negotiations, mediation and conflict management courses.

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