South King Fire and Rescue Chief Al Church announced on Jan. 1 that he would retire at the end of 2019.
In his announcement, he said “the year would allow ample time to conduct a search, whether internal, external or a combination of the two.” He also noted “the department is ready for a change at the top.”
In today’s dangerous world of first responders, the public needs assurance that the most talented people available are looking after their safety.
A majority of the elected SKFR commissioners have a fire background, and in consort with the union and fire management over the years, have treated the department more like a family business than a taxpayer supported public agency. It has been an old boys club with outside views discouraged.
Commissioners lack the needed check and balance on the administration the public relies upon, and is such an insiders club that commissioners, union members and officers frequently work together to help incumbents get re-elected. To an objective third party, the arrangements are too cozy, as the district has hired family members, and children of employees have gotten summer jobs with the district, which could give them an advantage when career positions open up. The relationship has a “you scratch my back” feel to it.
One former commissioner who raised questions, was isolated and didn’t feel like all the information was always provided equally.
I had received several confidential contacts, and rumors were circulating within SKFR about changes in the job description and criteria to benefit Assistant Chief Vic Pennington as a candidate. And despite several retirements that had already limited the candidate pool, the commissioner’s were planning to interview only inside candidates.
I had assumed that with the talent available in this region, let alone nationally, they would do a national recruitment along with a sophisticated public inclusive process. Maybe candidates of color that would reflect our demographics would be considered?
Several years ago I hired a fire chief while in Auburn. We used a round robin series of committees over two days, which included residents, union employees, internal fire staff, fire officers from other departments, and city departments including police and building officials. The chief we hired stayed 20 years.
Certainly the SKFR commissioners wouldn’t pass up this chance to recruit for new ideas and fresh perspectives, and of course they would be transparent and include the public in some manner since the public was paying the bill.
I was wrong on both counts.
The commissioners decided in January to interview only the three internal candidates who met the qualifications. When I asked about public involvement, a commissioner told me “we’re the public, we’re elected.” Beyond the lack of transparency, and lack of respect for the public that thought inspires, is a reaffirmation that this was an insiders game and no outside thoughts, ideas or people, were going to be considered. This left over 100,000 people out of the discussion. Any resident with average intelligence could certainly learn enough policy information to make reasonable comments on the candidates, or be a capable commissioner.
The three finalists fit the commissioners’ mold: Middle age, white males. Any group picture of the five commissioners and three finalists would not provide a welcoming invitation for women, candidates of color, a rising superstar from another department, nor reflect our demographics, and what our market goals should be.
One commissioner said there was no hurry to fill the position since Church wasn’t leaving until the end of the year. Another said there wasn’t enough time for an external search.
The three candidates were interviewed in public and then in executive session. In the public session, all three explained their skills and abilities for the job, but Pennington’s approach was almost a political campaign speech that included him reminding the commissioners that he had helped elect many commissioners over the years, and promising union cooperation.
The reason Pennington’s speech may have sounded more political than the others is that he is an elected member of the Des Moines City Council and serves as deputy mayor. Because of the potential for a conflict of interest, as Des Moines is part of the SKFR district, Pennington has recused himself from council issues that include SKFR.
But recusal would not be enough as chief, as an “appearance” issue would still be of concern to residents of Federal Way who might question whether or not his decisions were based on operational needs or political needs in Des Moines. Resignation from city government is the only way to resolve the “appearance” question. But Pennington never mentioned the issue until Mirror reporter Olivia Sullivan brought it up, and then he appeared not to give the issue much thought. Worse, the commissioners knew about it and didn’t address it during the meeting. Much of the public didn’t know about the potential legal issues and was never given the opportunity to question the commissioners.
A few years ago, the public sent a message to SKFR when their hand-picked new commissioner was Roger Flygare. But he was defeated by Bill Fuller who ran as an objective outsider and won. Fuller has not been the change agent people hoped, and closer taxpayer scrutiny is needed with possibly some fresh blood on the board, or an expansion of the board to seven with two new objective commissioners.
In answer to my question about getting the best qualified and available candidate, a commissioner said, “We got the best chief possible.” But with the rest of the region, state and 49 other states left out, there is no way for them to know the best available candidate wasn’t in a fire department in Michigan, California or Oregon where we found Auburn’s chief.
Like everyone else, I want Chief Pennington to succeed, but SKFR is too important to the lives of our residents to continue to be managed in such a myopic manner.
It is not a small family business, fiefdom, or old boys club. It is a good-sized public agency that needs a taxpayer check and balance relationship between the Board of Commissioners and the administration they supervise.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.