Several months ago when South King Fire and Rescue Chief Al Church announced he would be stepping down at the end of 2019, it set off a chain reaction throughout the department, which covers Federal Way and Des Moines.
When a longtime leader, such as Church, steps down and a new leader is sought, the Board of Commissioners, staff and the public have the opportunity to rethink the type of department they want. The opportunities for new ideas and a fresh approach is usually the direction chosen. When the CEO change is only a few years apart, continuity is more desirable. Church has done a good job, but his departure opened the door for an influx of new thoughts and communications with the public, that will pay for it, that hasn’t existed for decades.
The questions that could have been asked were: How can we ensure that we get the best chief available to lead us to the next level as a department? What does the public want in its next chief and from its fire service? Wouldn’t this be a good time to obtain an independent outside look at SKFR’s strengths and weaknesses, and develop an action plan to enhance our services? What changes do we need to make to ensure our future employees reflect our population? How do we attract more women and people of color to SKFR? Is now the time to open up the chief position and all management ranks to outside candidates who may bring talent, new ideas and skills?
Those questions and more could have been the subject of community meetings throughout the district , but it does not appear that the public was ever asked those questions in any organized manner, or even asked at all.
It appears the questions asked were: How do we keep our private family business to ourselves? Which insider will be the new chief? How will change affect the status quo of our insiders club? Who will have the power?
There were rumors that popular former Deputy Chief Gordy Olson, who went to Colorado to get a chiefs job, might want to come back. But that was derailed early by the insiders club known as the commisioners. No outsiders from Colorado, Seattle or anywhere else would be considered. Only insiders need apply.
And only three met the “adjusted” criteria. No external review to see if any changes might provide better service.
The rumor mill said Vic Pennington would be chosen as chief. The reason? He is a politician, and is connected to other politicians and to Commissioner James Fossos. Pennington is midway through a term on the Des Moines City Council and serves as deputy mayor.
Some feel Fossos steers the board’s decisions. The process unfolded and Pennington got the job, though he was not the favored choice of the rank and file.
Pennington acknowledges he has publicly supported the commissioner’s in their reelections, and discussed the job with other elected officials.
When there is a power vacancy, uncertainty over the unknown tends to guide employees reactions, and two new unions were formed, because of that uncertainty, that would require the new chief to negotiate some decisions.
In what is likely a move to ensure his own power base, Pennington reorganized, and three current administrators got new titles and sizable pay increases.
There has been some concern that Pennington’s loyalty may be geographically divided by where he lives, and where he works. Pennington says he will make a decision on his future on the City Council after the current elections in Des Moines.
Insiders believe he will step down from the council to focus on being chief, rather than have the questions continue when the district will likely need additional funding.
The new chief says his priorities are budget, training, professional development, succession planning and hiring to reflect the community. The latter is an issue faced by many police and fire departments and is overdue. And while Pennington isn’t fully in charge until January, the first nine new firefighters hired after Pennington was on board were all male and only one person of color.
That goal is clearly going to need commitment.
One of the changes needed in the department is to open up management positions to outsiders. Pennington says he might consider it in the future. But the internal pressure from commissioners and employees to keep the department an insiders club will likely stop any thoughts of new people and new ideas. And Pennington may not want to change a system that landed him the chiefs job. The rumor mill also speculates that Al Church may return as a commissioner at some point.
The public may not see much difference is service delivery, but we will always wonder what we might have become with a more transparent and inclusive approach.
Pennington is stepping into a difficult new job and already has some challenges to making the kind of changes the department needs. He will need solid management skills, and creative thinking.
Good luck, Chief Pennington.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.