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South King Fire commissioner wants independent review of chief's contract negotiations

A South King Fire and Rescue commissioner wants to fund an independent review of the process by which Chief Allen Church’s new contract was negotiated, saying he is unsure if it was allowable under the policies of the board.

Commissioner Mark Freitas brought up his desire for an independent review at the Nov. 18 board of commissioners meeting. He said Chairman Bill Gates negotiated the contract with Church alone, and that may be against board policy. Freitas voted against the new contract, which was approved 3-2 at the Nov. 15 meeting, because he had not had a chance to properly review it.

“I'm contemplating having an independent review done and paid for by myself as necessary to address the issue,” he said. “I'm not sure that Chairman Gates had the authority to negotiate that contract.”

The contract was brought to the commissioners at an executive session meeting on Nov. 15. After that session ended, the commission held a vote to approve the contract. Commissioner John Rickert also voted against the contract because he felt he did not have time to review it.

Gates could not be reached for comment as of press time.

The new contract is largely the same as the old one, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2008. Church’s salary is frozen at the 2010 level at $169,454; it was $155,000 in 2008. Church waived a $2,500 clothing allowance for 2011. However, the fire district’s contribution to a deferred compensation plan rose from $100 to $250 in the new contract. The new contract, signed by Church on Nov. 15 and by Gates on Nov. 19, expires on Dec. 31, 2018.

Freitas does not have an issue with the content of the contract. He said that a yearly performance review of Church is Gates’ responsibility, but has not yet been done. According to the contract, a review is to be done at the end of each year. The contract that began in 2008 was not set to expire until 2013, and Freitas questions why a new one was already renegotiated.

“One of the things the chairman is responsible for is a performance review. Negotiating (the contract) early without a performance review is questionable,” he said. “I had no idea a contract was being negotiated before Monday.”

Rickert said he was disappointed that he and the rest of the commissioners did not get more time to review the contract.

“It surprised me,” Rickert said of the contract being brought to a vote on Nov. 15. “I wasn't ready to vote on it because I didn't have time to review it.”

Rickert said that he’s been involved as a commissioner with contract negotiations with the chief in the past. The board looked over the contract, made changes, sent it back to the chief for review and then voted on it at another meeting, he said.

“I'm not opposed to having a contract with the chief. I just wanted time to see what it involves,” Rickert said.

Freitas is unsure how a review of the process would be done, but said he would pay for it if an outside attorney had to be hired.

The commissioners’ attorney, Joe Quinn, said he would “balk” if Freitas asked him to do the review, unless it was something that a majority of the commissioners wanted. If Freitas hired outside counsel to do the review, Quinn said any result would likely have little effect.

If Freitas said “‘Well I'm going to this personally,’ he can do that, I suppose. But it won't have the weight of the board of the fire district because it's not a board action,” Quinn said.

Freitas, who was first elected in 1997 to the board, and was chairman up until last year, said that it’s part of his elected duty to have his say in all affairs of the department.

“I live by the adopted policies of the board. I'm not a grandstander, I'm not in this for any gain; it's what I'm elected to do,” Freitas said.

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