Former San Carlos mayor Mike King may be the one on trial for allegedly defrauding the South County Fire Authority, but the politics of its two cities is under the microscope, recent testimony reveals.

Witnesses described conferences that skirt the California Open Meetings Act, decisions made outside the confines of formal meetings and possible bias the defense argues led to the criminal investigation.

King, 64, is charged with two counts of fraud for allegedly directing political consultant Margaret "Peg” Collier to submit false bills to the South County Fire Authority, the fire agency he chaired. Collier, 68, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor fraud for her role and the prosecution wants jurors to believe she acted on King’s orders. The defense claims King is not responsible for Collier’s actions and is slowly building a case built on his reported strong character and alleged long-standing bias by Belmont officials

Former Belmont City Manager Jere Kersnar, who also sat on the fire agency board, testified he was suspicious when Collier submitted a bill in spring 2004 for reportedly helping displaced firefighters find new jobs after the Measure I parcel tax failed in November 2003. Collier was hired by the campaign to get the $88 a year parcel tax measure passed but had yet to be paid. Although the invoice was for work Collier was never hired to do, the document totaled close to the $15,000 she was owed by the campaign, Kersnar said.

San Carlos City Manager Mike Garvey first said he was aware Collier had made at least some phone calls on behalf of the firefighters, Kersnar testified, adding he accepted the statement at face value.

After Collier began calling to check on the invoice status, Kersnar said he "was starting to think this was really getting troublesome.”

In another conversation, Garvey "said Mike King and [Belmont Mayor] Dave Warden had come up with a way to pay Peg Collier,” Kersnar said.

Kersnar said he was surprised by the remark because the campaign ended in debt and public fire authority funds cannot legally be used to pay for campaign expenses. However, he did not believe Garvey was being less than truthful.

"He has honesty and integrity. He’s not always open with his thoughts and I wasn’t always sure that I was getting the whole story but it never entered my mind there were fabrications,” Kersnar said.

The defense plans to call Garvey to the stand during its case.

Kersnar met with Warden to discuss Garvey’s comments but was limited because Councilwoman Coralin Feierbach, also a fire board member, tagged along. California’s Brown Act open meeting law prevents the discussion of agency issues outside a meeting with a majority of members.

The trio did consider contacting the District Attorney’s Office about the invoices but held off. By the end of July, the city of Belmont fired Kersnar and prosecutors were finally approached.

Warden is expected to take the stand this morning for the prosecution but any confirmation he makes of previous testimony could be colored by a Tuesday night discussion he had with former councilman and earlier witness George Metropulos.

Under questioning by defense attorney Chuck Smith Wednesday morning, Metropulos admitted speaking with Warden after his own testimony. The admission ended a contentious cross-examination in which Smith accused Metropulos of being evasive and pointing investigators toward King from the get-go. Metropulos testified King told him Collier’s payment was "taken care of” but did not recall a specific date or location of the conversation. Weeks later, Warden reportedly approached Metropulos about the questionable invoices and the pair, along with Feierbach, met with the district attorney.

The two cities have had a long, contentious relationship despite their shared fire services under the South County Fire Authority. Recent acrimony seems to have quelled, however, as a move to split the authority was dropped and the two cities are negotiating a new agreement. Some contend the new agreement was only reached when King and former San Carlos councilman Don Eaton left their positions on the council and the fire authority board.

King is free from custody on his own recognizance.

Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: michelle@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor: letters@smdailyjournal.com.<

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