(Originally published September 7, 2004.)

Mike Leonard has spent 26-1/2 years facing down walls of flame and running into burning buildings. This autumn, he's going to be doing something that he finds truly scary.

"Somebody asked me how I feel about public speaking, and I said I'd rather run into a burning building than stand up in front of people and talk," Leonard said last week.

But talk he will have to, as Leonard is one of three candidates for Hesperia City Council, and the only non-incumbent and thus the only unknown quantity for voters.

Leonard, a captain with the San Bernardino County Fire Department, had just come off a 48-hour shift at the time of the interview, and said he would engage in "time trades" with other firefighters to make his schedule work should he be elected.

"I may have to pay them back 8 hours for 4 hours," he said.

Although Leonard has lived in Hesperia since 1968, and his children attended Hesperia High School and Hesperia Christian School, while he worked for the Hesperia Fire District, he was unable to run for office as a city employee. As of June 1, Hesperia's fire department was no more, and he was a county employee.

Members of the City Council also serve as the Hesperia Fire Protection District board. Leonard does not believe there will be a conflict of interest as an employee of the county fire department and as a City Council member monitoring and paying the contract with the county fire department for fire service in the city.

"I don't believe so, because I wouldn't be discussing hourly wages," he said.

Leonard was one of the fire department union negotiators in the negotiations that eventually ended with the city council deciding to close Hesperia's fire department and contract out with the county. Leonard said the decision was all but inevitable.

"Our very first negotiation with the city, everyone was happy and shook hands," he said. But the city's labor attorney "Richard Chrysler said 'I fully expect to be at an impasse by 4 o'clock.'"

And Chrysler was proven right.

"Everything we offered was rejected. Even our last offer, which was the exact staffing we have today."

Although the political and emotional climate surrounding the fire department changeover was highly charged at the time, Leonard said he, and Hesperia's firefighters, have moved on.

"We're county fire. Everybody's happy. That's not the issue."

Which isn't to say that fire service, and all emergency services, isn't an issue to him at all.

"Public safety is an issue. Has been and always will be," he said. In particular, "the hospitals are just a mess."

His primary issue, however, is the city government's relationship with Hesperia residents.

"I don't feel the city communicates well with the people. They don't listen to them all the time," Leonard said. "I think we need to establish better communication with the people. Instead of calling the city and getting an answering machine, we need a real human voice.

"The council works for the people. And I think a lot of them forget that."

If Leonard is one of the two candidates elected, he will be joining the council alongside a candidate who voted to shut down the Hesperia Fire Protection District and contract fire service out with the county. Both Mayor Tad Honeycutt and Councilman Dennis Nowicki were in the four-member majority that voted to make the change.

"I think I could work with either one of them," Leonard said. "I'm a pretty easy-going guy. I don't know the reasons behind why they did what they did, but we can work together."

The candidate is also eyeing the current explosive growth Hesperia and the High Desert are experiencing with caution. If all currently planned housing developments are built, Hesperia's population will approach 100,000 within five years. Leonard said he does not think the council should try to hold back the growth, but does need to direct and control it.

"You're not going to stop it, but damn, don't give these folks a free ride."

Leonard's campaign is currently collecting campaign contributions, most of them in the form of $99 personal checks from individuals, and local firefighters are in the process of setting up a Political Action Committee that will help fund his campaign. Leonard will be hosting a fundraiser on Sept. 16.

"And I've got several guys who are going to put signs up."

Even at this early stage of the campaign, Leonard has begun to be somewhat associated with Councilwoman Rita Vogler, who has openly come out against incumbent Councilman Dennis Nowicki. Vogler was the lone vote of dissent in the decision to shut down Hesperia's fire department. Although Leonard and Vogler know each other, he said the political and personal relationship does not extend much beyond that point.

"I've known Rita, good Lord," he trailed off, thinking. "They moved up here in '72. She used to work at Safeway, and my wife's sister worked there, so we knew each other through that. But we've never socialized."

Becoming a member of the city council is not just about attending meetings two Wednesdays a month. Effective council members have lots of reading, visits to the site of issues confronting the council, and meeting with city staff and residents. Leonard said the demands of the job won't be a problem for his family.

"A firefighter's wife is pretty much used to him not being home all the time anyway. About the third day of a four day [period off], she asks 'when is it you go back to work, anyway?'"

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at beau@hesperiastar.com or 956-7108.