South King Fire's elementary school parody | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner - Contributed
Bob Roegner
— image credit: Contributed

“He was looking at me,” said the sixth grader to the teacher recently. While childish, those words are pretty close to one of the complaints contained in South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR) Chief Al Church’s allegations of “harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment” against one of his bosses, Commissioner Mark Freitas.

There has been considerable speculation about what bombshells were in the complaint since rumor leaked of its existence.

Church is a seasoned chief, having worked at the department for 36 years, with 15 years as chief. He is a highly educated man and well respected. Conversely, Freitas has been a commissioner for 17 years, was an Army officer, deputy sheriff, chair of the Chamber of Commerce and is a real estate broker. These are two community heavyweights presumably not prone to childish behavior and with skins thick enough to support their leadership mantles.

An allegation at this level is significant and is not a matter to be taken lightly.

Since I have done several investigations on those topics over the years, I, along with others, was concerned about what would cause such a highly charged allegation to be made.

Anyone who follows the election cycle knows that there has been several episodes of political upheaval over the years with questions on expenditures, staffing, taxes, the chief’s son’s disciplinary and legal matters and questions around the chief’s contract.

There used to be an undercurrent of “insiders” and “outsiders” in these disagreements. But more recently, the divide has become much more open, obvious and contentious. Church is an insider supported by the other four commissioners and Freitas is an outsider who asks too many questions the insiders don’t like.

Some in the community have suggested that the insiders are so cozy as to raise questions about whether or not any true check and balance on behalf of the public actually exists between the board and its employee, Church.

Some who have raised questions or been critical of SKFR have found themselves on the receiving end of negative personal comments from SKFR officials.

But even with those caveats, for the chief to file a complaint, Freitas’s treatment surely must have been outrageous. I was stunned when I read Mr. Federal Way’s column and comments calling the report a soap opera not worthy of the approximately $28,000 in taxpayer funds it cost to produce. I assumed Mr. Federal Way had overstated the lack of substance in the report. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

Other complaints included Church’s feeling of being stalked because Freitas drove through his neighborhood to see a friend a few blocks away, of “tolerating” Freitas driving through the fire department parking lot checking to see if the chief was there and then stopping in at odd times, like 5:30 p.m., to visit about department issues.

Other complaints included that Freitas suggested after 36 years the chief might want to consider retiring. Freitas suggested the chief might be taking too much time off. Being critical of Freitas for having coffee with an employee that some thought might be disgruntled.

Saying Freitas stares at him in meetings, and that Freitas shared the departments strategic plan with a member of the media, and  “with those who were totally opposed to our attempted ballot measure (i.e. Jerry Galland).”

From another point of view, these issues could also be a commissioner trying to do his job. But Church went even farther, saying Freitas’s friendship with Jerry Galland is the most “heinous.” “He (Freitas) is consorting with an outside member, whom he refers to as a constituent.” The chief goes on to say “that Freitas and Galland have been sighted having lunch and coffee.”

If you’re an adult reading this, think through those statements. Does the chief or anyone else get to decide who Freitas can have coffee or lunch with or talk to? Galland is a constituent, and the strategic plan should be a public document available to anyone. And heinous?

It is certainly likely that Freitas and Galland share similar points of view on issues related to SKFR and may be political allies. That’s politics.

That is not to say Freitas has been perfect in this little melodrama. I have watched Freitas over the years. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t. And his style can be a little direct and it might offend some people, although he generally conducts himself appropriately. But I have also seen high ranking SKFR officials treat him in a less than courteous or inclusive manner in public settings. The word snub comes to mind.

And at the debates last year between commissioner Bill Gates and challenger Galland, SKFR commissioner James Fossos interrupted Galland twice and was admonished by the moderator. Whether you like Galland or not, we live in a democracy where he is entitled to ask questions and run for office. He shouldn’t be interrupted by another commissioner, he should be able to obtain public documents and Church shouldn’t treat Galland as an enemy because of who he has lunch with.

With strong support from the rest of the board and no visible reason to feel insecure or vulnerable, one has to wonder why Church had to file a complaint over such small issues?

As a public agency, the leaders of SKFR should listen to all points of view, and be inclusive of all residents, not just those they agree with. They have sometimes acted with thin skins and a self-righteous attitude that has allowed simple differences of opinion on policy questions to degenerate into name calling and formal complaints. That is not constructive to the public they serve.

The investigator does a good job with little or no substance to work with. And he prods Freitas to work on how he approaches people.

But a reader might also find room to question the behavior of several others in this little elementary school parody. And you are left with the feeling that the public interests might have been better served if SKFR had just hired a good third grade playground teacher to shape up everyone’s behavior.

Lastly, don’t blame the hardworking men and women of the SKFR for this episode. Some of them are probably just as embarrassed by this as we all should be. Let’s hope all concerned can put this issue behind them and find a way to work together.

Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn: bjroegner@comcast.net.


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