South King Fire and Rescue needs to think of public transparency

The “old boy’s club” that is our fire department doesn’t appear all that interested in having the taxpayers, who pay the bill, actually understand what is going.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

Citizen participation in city government and the school district is high because both encourage you to attend and provide information that you can read, understand and comment on.

Would you like to know more about what happens to your taxpaying dollars at South King Fire and Rescue? Would you like to attend one of their meetings? The “old boy’s club” that is our fire department doesn’t appear all that interested in having the taxpayers, who pay the bill, actually participate or understand what is going on at SKFR.

They have continued their attitude that SKFR runs like a family business rather than a public agency.

And worse, it has been going on so long that some leaders don’t even grasp why their lack of transparency is wrong in today’s world.

Readers will recall that rather than do a regional or national search for a new chief to ensure they got the best candidates available, and potentially reach candidates that would have new ideas, they limited the field to internal candidates only.

During the process, the commissioners changed the rules that appeared to favor one candidate. There was also no effort to reach out to public stakeholders to join in the process. Commissioners missed a golden opportunity to educate the public on how SKFR serves the public need and give appreciation to the final outcome while setting the stage for the next time they want to ask the public to vote for more stations or equipment.

Early in the process, insiders said the job was wired for Vic Pennington. True or not, he did get the job.

The first challenge was two new unions were an outgrowth of internal politics, relationships and discomfort with change.

The next was that new Chief Pennington had to decide whether or not to stay on the Des Moines City Council, where he served as deputy mayor. He had already been serving in SKFR management while serving on the council. But as chief he would be the CEO of SKFR, and as one insider said: “You can’t serve two masters.”

Pennington side-stepped a potentially difficult situation by resigning from the Des Moines City Council to concentrate on his new responsibilities. Had he not taken that step, residents of Federal Way might have wondered about whether he would favor Des Moines in making decisions about service levels between the two jurisdictions, and put reelection above their public safety. He made the right decision.

In an interview last fall, Pennington said he wanted to improve transparency. If so, there are some easy adjustments.

If residents are used to attending council or school board meetings, you might be surprised, and disappointed in a SKFR commissioner’s meeting. At city and school meetings, residents can get pretty much the same information as the elected board members and staff either off the website or in handouts. At SKFR meetings, the public only gets a one-page agenda to follow.

But the only people to get the back-up data are the commissioners and staff. Even though taxpayers pay for everything, you will not be trusted to actually see or read the data. The commissioners will vote on motions and resolutions with little explanation, and you will be in the dark as to what is going on.

Commissioners will vote on the minutes of the last meeting but you won’t be able to see them until they are posted on the website the following week. All agencies vote to finalize draft minutes, but most provide the public or media packets through the website or handouts, that include all that evenings documents that will be reviewed, discussed and voted on, including meeting minutes.

The SKFR staff and commissioners have a meeting packet, and there is no reason the media, who have to try and explain the meeting to the public, and any citizen, can’t have the same packet if they are interested enough to attend the meeting.

Most public meeting start times are at 6:30 or 7 p.m. so that the public can get home from work and then go to the meeting. SKFR meetings start at 5 p.m. when most taxpayers are still bogged down in traffic. The 5 p.m. start seems built for staff and commissioners convenience. And don’t arrive late or the meeting will already be over, which gives the impression that it was all agreed to already.

And don’t get used to relying on the agenda for guidance on what will be discussed because at the bottom it states: “The Board of Fire Commissioners may add items and take action on items not listed on the agenda.”

That statement should worry you. It means that no matter what they publish in the public agenda, they can still do whatever they want. Commissioners are elected public officials and should be held accountable for their actions.

However, everything appears to be done to have the public know as little as possible about how your fire department is run.

Lastly, for almost a year Commissioner James Fossos has been unable to attend commissioner meetings after spending time in the hospital. Despite questions from the media, very little has been shared about his possible return. There is a legitimate question about how much the public is entitled to know about an elected official’s health.

But to act like it is not the public’s business is overly secretive and continues the commissioners’ style of disregarding that SKFR is a public agency.

The December meeting was held in Des Moines to make it easier for him to attend, but he didn’t. In fact, the chair of the board was almost rude when questioned about whether the public was being fully served by having one less commissioner for almost a year.

Some agencies have rules about how many meetings an elected official can miss. And at every meeting the board or chair lists his absence as excused thus avoiding questions about abandonment of office. At a recent meeting the chair said we may know more at the March meeting.

Some privacy and caution are reasonable, but after a year the public has a right to know if he will return or not. If not, then the board needs to take other steps to ensure full representation.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.


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