SKFR board preserving commissioner’s seat despite lengthy absence

Fossos has been absent from board duties since he was admitted to hospital in March 2019; board plans to address issue at Jan. 28 meeting.

The South King Fire and Rescue Board of Fire Commissioners recently announced plans to preserve the elected position of Commissioner James Fossos as his recovery continues.

Fossos was admitted to Harborview Medical Center in March 2019 due to undisclosed health concerns, according to the hospital’s media relations.

Former Fire Chief Allen Church wrote an email to department personnel and board commissioners on March 16, 2019 to share the news of Fossos’s medical incident.

“Commissioner Jim Fossos had a major medical emergency this morning … He had a significant head bleed,” Church noted, adding in a separate email: “Thankfully, he has not had a stroke nor an aneurysm.”

In April, Fossos was “in satisfactory condition,” Harborview spokesperson Barbara Clements previously told the Mirror. Fossos was discharged from Harborview on May 15, 2019.

For the past 10 months, Fossos has been excused from each monthly meeting of the South King Fire Board of Commissioners.

At a special board meeting held Jan. 14, board chair Bill Gates declined to comment on Fossos’s health status or the board’s long-term plan for his commissioner position. Vice chair Mark Thompson said in a Jan. 16 phone interview the state of Fossos’ health is “between him and his doctor.”

In a follow-up email on Jan. 21, Gates provided details of the board’s process and future plans in regards to Fossos.

Fossos has communicated his desire to continue his service as commissioner, Gates confirmed. Fossos return to service is dependent on gaining clearance from his doctor.

“The department is supportive of Commissioner Fossos’ desire to return to service, and defers to [Fossos] to make that determination with advice from his doctor and his family,” Gates wrote the Mirror.

Gates told the Mirror in November that based on conversations with Fossos and his family members, Fossos “is progressing.”

Under Washington state law, there is no limit on the amount of excused absences a board commissioner is allowed, nor are there ordinances or board rules regarding what is an acceptable reason for being absent.

If a board member asks the chair for an excusal, the chair may grant it, Gates explained.

The chair makes note of the absence as part of the regular meeting, and it is approved without a board vote unless a board member requests a discussion or review of that action. All absences are addressed on a case-by-case basis and are recorded in the meeting minutes.

“There has not been a history of problematic absences of board members,” Gates added. “Absences have been infrequent as expected for reasons of travel and minor illness.”

In Fossos’s absence, the board of fire commissioners can function as a quorum of three to continue to approve motions and keep fire district business going as usual, SKFR Assistant Chief Gordy Goodsell previously told the Mirror.

“The community’s not being hurt,” Gates said when asked in November 2019 about the fairness to the citizens within the fire district of Fossos’ ongoing excused absences from the board.

Regarding public inquiry, the board has not had any residents ask question regarding Fossos’ absence as of January 2020.

“Nobody has talked to the other board members,” Thompson said. “… If they (the residents) have questions, they should call us.”

If and when a commissioner position becomes vacant before the expiration of the elected official’s term, the board has 90 days to appoint a qualified citizen to the seat, according to the SKFR board guidelines for policies and procedures.

Historically, the department incorporated in 1949 and operated with three fire commissioners until 1988 when the board of fire commissioners determined, due to the growing size of the fire district, to increase the number to five board members.

As the primary duties of the board members are fulfilled while in attendance at commissioner meetings, Fossos has not performed business or received any compensation during this absence, Gates confirmed.

“While [James’] presence and experience on the board is missed, the remaining members of the board have conducted business in his absence, and the outcome of all motions have not been compromised in the absence of his vote,” Gates wrote.

All votes have passed unanimously 4-0 during Fossos’ absences.

As the board chair, Gates told the Mirror he plans to proceed with deference to Fossos and his family while ensuring the business of the district is not interrupted.

“The intent of this plan is to support him and preserve the position that he was elected to perform” Gates continued.

Fossos’ condition may take up to one year to accurately assess and predict his return to service, Gates noted.

At the next board meeting on Jan. 28, Gates plans to speak with the board members about asking Fossos for an update and a decision regarding his return to service before the March meeting, of which marks one year from the beginning of his absence.

Fossos did not return the Mirror’s requests for comment.

He has been on the South King Fire board since 2005 and his current term expires in 2023. Four commissioners remain active on the board.

“Commissioner Fossos was elected by the citizens of our district; allowing him time to heal and return to service honors that vote,” Gates stated. “[James] brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to our team and we miss him. We don’t want to lose his influence on the board. I think the citizens support Commissioner Fossos, and they support giving him time to heal.”