Over the past few years there has been a significant amount of discussion, some of it critical, about South King Fire and Rescue.
Residents and the media have raised questions of nepotism, fiscal accountability and the seeming lack of independence of the elected board of commissioners from the staff they are responsible for supervising.
One Commissioner, Mark Freitas, challenged the situation and was isolated by the board in another situation when the chief filed a complaint against him. The investigation didn’t show any misbehavior on anyone’s part but did underscore the level of apparent coziness between some of the board and the administration.
Freitas decided not to seek re-election. His position will be on the ballot this year.
South King Fire is a special purpose district that serves as the fire department, and provides emergency medical services for Federal Way and Des Moines. They have their own elected board of five commissioners, and a chief to manage the department.
Like all government agencies, they receive their funding from taxpayers.
I haven’t written much about them lately so I was surprised when I was approached by two commissioners and the fire chief recently. The chief approached me in my capacity in another organization. He was concerned about the failure of the fire district’s request of the public for more financial support. The request needed 60 percent passage and only received 57 percent.
It was a very positive meeting as he seemed eager to look for ways to engage the public in discussions about the department’s needs.
At the Flag Day ceremony, a South King Fire commissioner approached me who didn’t like something I had written regarding nepotism. Quite some time ago, the chief’s son, who is employed in the department, had a disciplinary issue come up. As a general rule, I think it is bad public policy for relatives to be employed by the same taxpayer supported agency. No matter how well intended or careful everyone involved in the situation is, it will always create an appearance of favoritism and therefore suspicion from other employees. Being the chief’s son makes the issue even more visible.
Without regard to the question of the appropriateness of time and place, the commissioner is entitled to his opinion. As you might expect, the commissioner had a different view than mine and said nepotism was everywhere and made reference to Nordstrom’s. I pointed out that Nordstrom’s was a private sector company, but the fire district is supported by taxpayers and shouldn’t be considered a family business.
Right or wrong, the public will think favoritism exists. The commissioner went on to say that no one who hadn’t actually worked in a fire department was qualified to comment on one. I think he may have been including Mirror political writers in that opinion, but I could be wrong. He went on to say that it was always harder on the relative, not easier.
Since the commissioner’s voice was getting louder, I excused myself from further discussion. But his thinking is exactly what concerns me, as it seems to reflect the board majority thinking. Even if it is harder, and it may be, that is just another reason not to have relatives work together. It shouldn’t be easier or harder on an employee related to another employee. It should be the same for all employees, and must also “appear” to be the same for all employees to any independent third party.
That is simply impossible when relatives work in the same place, particularly in visible taxpayer supported departments. Also, under the commissioner’s theory, no one could serve on the fire district’s board unless they had worked in a fire department. Baloney. While some learning would be necessary, as with any new job, any citizen who is willing to study and ask questions could serve on the board. It is a policy board not a technical board. Again, the commissioner’s thinking seems to embody a “big brother knows best” syndrome that may lie at the heart of the public’s continued questions.
At the city’s 25th anniversary celebration, another commissioner approached me who said someone contacted him and he was concerned about some questions I had included about the fire district in a recent column. The commissioner’s interpretation seemed to be they weren’t appropriate questions. I suggested he actually read the column himself and I would be happy to meet him for coffee if he still had concerns.
The questions were provided in my June 12 column for citizens to ask when they meet candidates for all of the offices up for election this year. The questions pertaining to South King Fire and Rescue were: “At South King Fire and Rescue, there are two major questions that commissioner candidates need to answer that are intertwined. Why should the public support additional funding? And when will there be some serious oversight of the department that gives the public the confidence that they need to provide that support?”
Both are very valid questions for voters to ask commissioner candidates. The commission works for the taxpaying public, not the fire district. They supervise the fire district. A system of checks and balances is inherent in that responsibility.
But since the chief is reaching out to the community trying to learn answers, maybe the commissioners should be as well. And since there are three candidates running to replace Freitas and all other incumbent commissioners and the chief have endorsed the same one, asking the candidates to articulate how they will ensure a system of checks and balances seems to be a pretty good idea. The endorsements suggest the newest member of the insiders club has already been decided.
My intent in this column is not to reopen old wounds, but to remind voters that they have a chance to engage the commissioners and the candidates in an open dialog on policies, operations and costs of their fire department. But I also want to give a nod to Chief Allen Church for his interest in finding answers. I hope he is successful. But he may want to look a little closer to home for some of the answers.
Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.