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Fire chief’s complaint prompts board to reprimand commissioner following investigation | Update

Left to right, South King Fire and Rescue board vice chair James Fossos, commissioner Mark Thompson and chair Bill Gates, during a special meeting on Monday night. The board took action against commissioner Mark Freitas, following an investigation into a complaint that Chief Al Church filed against Freitas. - Carrie Rodriguez, Federal Way Mirror
Left to right, South King Fire and Rescue board vice chair James Fossos, commissioner Mark Thompson and chair Bill Gates, during a special meeting on Monday night. The board took action against commissioner Mark Freitas, following an investigation into a complaint that Chief Al Church filed against Freitas.
— image credit: Carrie Rodriguez, Federal Way Mirror

The South King Fire and Rescue board reprimanded a fellow commissioner Monday night after an investigation found he made “age-related” comments to fire Chief Al Church.

The board hired an outside investigator, Russ Perisho, last December after Church filed a complaint in October against Commissioner Mark Freitas. The 10-page complaint alleged that Freitas urged the chief to retire in Freitas’s Feb. 15, 2013 evaluation of Church — a request that Church interpreted as “age discrimination.” Church also accused Freitas of stalking him, making personal snipes to Church, staring at him during meetings to intimidate him and harassment, amongst more than a dozen allegations.

During the meeting, Freitas’s family, including his wife, two daughters and infant grandson, sat in the back of the room as a show of support, while the board took action against the commissioner. Church was not present for personal reasons.

Freitas vehemently denies the allegations, he told the Mirror.

Stalking, staring and sniping

“I find it very difficult to write this letter to my board of fire commissioners,” Church wrote in the complaint. “However, after so many years of sniping, personal attacks, behaviors that I consider unethical, stalking and unlawful insinuations against me personally, I can no longer sit back and be thick-skinned.”

He outlined his work relationship with Freitas, noting that his initial exposure to the commissioner was “not pleasant.” He said the union, IAFF Local No. 2024, encouraged Freitas to run for the position during a difficult labor/management period, “where he was looked to as being someone to challenge both (then-administrator) Jim Hamilton and myself.”

He said his relationship with Freitas at that time was “strained, as exemplified by his snipes during commissioner meetings … and during station tours where he lost his temper with me and several other chief officers, relative to the maintenance of food for emergency management, flies he found in an overhead light fixture and a set of bunker gear that he found in a shop lockup, which he found offensive.”

Church noted in 1998 or 1999, their relationship became “so bad” that he worked with the commissioners to bring in a consulting firm to try and work through “all the contentious issues involving Freitas.”

He said after he was promoted to fire chief in 2001, he worked to be supportive and friendly with Freitas, tolerating his “driving through the parking lot always ‘looking for the chief’ at the headquarters station … often stopping by at unique times (such as on Friday evenings to come in and talk).”

During the last five years, their relationship became “much worse,” Church said.

He noted on one occasion, he said Freitas accused him of “triangulating” him and commissioner John Rickert in order to get a new personal services contract adopted. Church admits he lost his temper and told Freitas that the board came to him to ask him to entertain extending his contract beyond 2013 to ensure he stayed to lead the department after the district’s investment in his education.

Church requested some modifications to his contract, including a severance package, should the board decide to eliminate him, to preserve his ability to reach his full retirement, he said. He said before the board approved his new contract, Freitas tried to table the issue and then further threatened, via the newspaper, that he would involve outside legal counsel to overturn the contract vote.

Church also accused Freitas of making numerous comments to Church’s direct staff behind his back and attempting to intimidate and stalk him.

“He sits during commissioner meetings, often staring at me, unchecked, red in the face and glaring,” Church wrote, noting that his administrative staff noticed this behavior. “I make a habit not to look at him unless he is speaking to avoid the attempted intimidating stare.”

Church said on several occasions Freitas moved his place setting, so that he sits directly across from Church, “and stares at me throughout the entire process …”

He urged the board to investigate the issue not to “isolate, triangulate or demonize” Freitas, but to “identify and purge a behavior that is destructive, malicious, lacks integrity and has caused both me and my staff more stress than is acceptable in the workplace.”

However, the investigator noted in his report that while Freitas’s statement urging Church to retire in his evaluation was inappropriate and inconsistent with the district’s equal opportunity employment policy, the statements themselves were “unlikely to constitute unlawful age discrimination.”

Freitas noted that the chief had “many promotional opportunities available to him” and he was only “urging him to consider retirement.”

The investigator interviewed 10 staff members and commissioners, including Church and Freitas.

Regarding the alleged stalking, Freitas told the investigator that both he and the chief have busy schedules, so he has found it easier to touch bases at the end of the day. He said he may have driven into the parking area on multiple occasions to see if Church was there.

Freitas also said he drove by Church’s home on one occasion to pick up a lease paper from a business associate who lives nearby.

The investigator found that Freitas also did not violate district policy by driving by the chief’s house for legitimate reasons.

The investigation report outlined other areas where Freitas did not violate the district’s policies. However, the investigator noted that the board should take action against him to discourage certain perceived inappropriate behavior.

Board reprimands Freitas

Following a 15-minute executive session during the special meeting on Monday, the board approved making the investigation report available to the public.

The board also voted 4-0 to carry out the investigator’s recommendations, including to remove Freitas’s comment urging Church to consider retirement, from the district’s files and records.

Freitas recused himself from all motions that were made during the meeting.

The investigator also recommended to inform Freitas that the board expects him to follow district policies and refrain from making age-related comments in personnel matters. In addition, the board also informed Freitas to refrain from discourteous and disrespectful public statements and behavior to district staff, making unnecessary provoking and disrespectful public sentiments and behavior to district staff and “engaging in physical behavior that can reasonably be perceived as intended to be intimidating.”

The motion also called for Freitas to comply with the commissioner’s guidelines, including to treat every district employee and the board with respect; to exhibit respect when expressing criticism during a public meeting; not to influence the selection of district personnel, other than performing appropriate oversight duties regarding the chief; and for him to direct requests for information to Church, consistent with the board’s guidelines.

The meeting heated up when board vice chair James Fossos made another motion to censure Freitas. Fossos asked for the censure as a gesture “to signify that this board condemns and does not condone his behavior as set forth in this investigation report … “

Board chair Bill Gates seconded the motion.

Board member John Rickert called the motion “punitive and meaningless” and didn’t believe the board had the authority to censure a fellow commissioner.

However, Fossos disagreed, saying Frietas’s alleged behavior “leaves this board in a libelous situation.”

“The purpose of the motion is to demonstrate to the public, the fire chief and all of our employees that actions by one commissioner are not the action of this whole board or any of the other commissioners,” Fossos said. “Remember that this resulted from the actions of commissioner Freitas and that we need to disagree with him.”

The motion failed 2-2, with Mark Thompson and Rickert casting no votes.

Gates wrapped up the meeting, casting the district’s actions in a positive direction.

“As someone said, it’s time to move forward, get back to business and heal wounds,” Gates said. “We are adjourned.”

But for Freitas, the matter is not over.

“There are inaccuracies in the report,” Freitas told the Mirror following the meeting. “None of the comments were made under penalty of perjury and I have issues with the report as it was written and accepted.”

He said he did not violate any of the commissioner’s guidelines.

“I’m frustrated, I’ve served this community for a long time,” Freitas said. “I’ve done everything that I think is prudent, everything that I’m obligated to do, to do a good job for the taxpayers.”

He also emphasized that this was an investigation, not a trial. He noted that while the district paid for the investigator, he paid for his own representation.

“My only recourse is to file a lawsuit, but I’ve got to talk to my attorney,” Freitas added.

Church wrote in an email that he is sure the overall process determined “an outcome that will allow the department and all members, elected and otherwise, to move forward.”

Freitas’s daughter, Rosa Freitas, said she hasn’t seen the investigation report as it was just made public on Monday. However, “I know that my dad’s always acted in the best interest of the district and stands up for what he knows is the right thing, even if it ruffles a few feathers along the way with the district management,” Rosa said. “He’s just not a rubber-stamp board member who will simply do what Al Church wants. He has the district’s interest at heart always.”

Rosa added she was frustrated that “people question his integrity.”

Jerry Galland, who attended the meeting, said the board showed “a real lack of integrity” in their actions.

“In a glaring failure at leadership, integrity, accountability and good of the district, Chairman Bill Gates embraced the convoluted motion addressing the trumped up complaint, validated through discussion that it originated as a mere slight, blown grossly out of proportion, and then openly condoned the frivolous action at our expense,” Galland wrote in an email. “Instead of dealing with the issue as a leader, of the only district employee he has oversight of, this resulted in meaningless, and demeaning to the district in general, actions by 80 percent of the board, again at great expense to the taxpayer in high-priced attorney fees and multiple non-open meeting costs for a non-factual investigation.”

Gates declined to comment further.

The Mirror has made a public records request to see the invoices outlining how much this investigation will cost taxpayers, and will publish that information when it becomes available.

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Commissioner Mark Freitas

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