Open Public Meetings

And the Fire District

Ever notice, when the public really is invited to attend and participate, that the public meeting starts at a time convenient to the public? Not the retired, unemployed or otherwise self-serving board members (or maybe their attorney).

Take the Federal Way School board for example. 7:00 in the evening.

Or the Lakehaven Utility District which schedules a 6pm start time.

And the Federal Way City Council meetings which all begin at 7pm.

Now we will review the start times for the Fire Commissioners meetings. Where are you when the regular meeting is called to order at 3:00 pm (changed from 4:00 by a 3-2 vote)?  Can you miss work to go to the 8:00 AM special meeting?

I would think the answer to these are no, you are busy trying to earn a living when the commissioners are meeting to tell you how your taxes are spent.

Scheduling the meetings for any time of day that dissuades public attendance shows nothing less than contempt for the citizens of the district.

Or, you could depend on the minutes, which are always published a month later and never show the entire conversation.

Why talk about this now?

This topic arises because at the February 4th Special Commissioners meeting the SKF&R board members were discussing another way to help ‘keep you informed’ with some more one-way feed of their meetings to you. Ways that include no public input, no timely feedback and no ability to influence decisions of the board.

And that will take more fire-fighting dollars out of an already tight budget.

Suggestions heard are to $tart video recording all board meeting$ and then posting the video on the web-site. Or arrange to have the meeting$ broadcast live.

These ideas will cost the taxpayer money and accomplish zero value for public input. By the time you read about or see the meeting, the votes are in and there is nothing you can do or say to affect it.

Public ‘Comments’

So then again, why bother at all? I have been to every single fire commissioners regular and special board meeting since September (sometimes leaving work and missing wages). And on every agenda there are two opportunities for “Public Comments”.

And that is just what they are. Not Public Input or Public Involvement. Simply a hollow opportunity to make a comment and get ignored. Unless you are in the room to laud the district on their performance in some fashion, anything you say is met by the chair with a tolerating stare, then ignored as the meeting progresses as if you never spoke.

Constructive suggestions to make the meeting more accessible, information more available or proceedings more transparent are summarily dropped in the trash can.

Wait! I have an idea!

And it will cost the taxpayer nothing! And give us a chance to actually be a part of the meeting, not simply an observer!

How about the meeting start at 7 pm so the public can attend and participate?

But then the commissioners might have to actually deal with the public in an official setting.

And we don’t want to inconvenience the $200 an hour attorney who shows up to entertain us with his hat collection, do we?

Contact Your Commissioner

Have a burning issue that you think the commissioner should address? On the issue of being accessible to the public they were elected to serve. How does a citizen go about contacting their commissioner? Talk about one-way communication. Visit their Elected Governance webpage at SKF&R. Read their biography and look at their photos. Now try to send them an email or call them to express a concern or ask a question.

Fugetaboutit. They don’t want to hear from you except at the daytime scheduled meetings. If you want to contact any of these elected officials, you can send an email to the generic catchall address of  info@southkingfire.org and hope it makes it to the intended commissioner.

Are these practices out of line with other elected officials? Compare them to these local offices:

Federal Way City Council website: http://www.cityoffederalway.com/Page.aspx?view=82

Lakehaven Utility District website: http://www.lakehaven.org/profiles.htm

Federal Way Public Schools website: http://www.fwps.org/info/board/

Each of these other local districts has easy access to the elected officials. Why do the fire commissioners remain in seclusion?

Walk the Talk

Repeatedly these elected officials show proof they are not really interested in what the public has to say. The scheduling of meetings while you are at work, for example. But they will go to great lengths to make you believe it.

Including at least one commissioner charging the taxpayers for meeting expense to attend the Chili Cook-off, go to a former fire chief’s funeral and sit in on a convicted embezzlers sentencing.  Makes you truly wonder who the commissioner is serving; the public or himself.

Commissioner Guidelines

As a side note, are you aware that the commissioners publish, and update as needed, a set of guidelines for themselves? Are you aware that these are all elected public officials? So why is it that we, the employers of these individuals, are being kept in the dark about the guidelines that the commissioners work under? Unless, of course, you submit a public records request for the document.

How simple, transparent and open it would be if the guidelines posted on the SKF&R Elected Governance website. Is that too much exposure for them?

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What can I say? Over a week has passed since this was brought to the chief’s attention and no response.

Repeatedly, the public in general, and I specifically, have been advised to contact the chief directly if we have a concern or question about the fire department.

Call or write the chief, I am told, and give him a chance to answer your concerns. After all, ‘we have nothing to hide’ the defenders say.

Last week, I tried their advice to see how it would work.

The Contact

On Tuesday, January 18th, I sent Chief Church a letter by email outlining the lie foisted upon the public through the official SKF&R website Operations page (Paragraph 3, line 2) wherein it described the Honor Guard as being members who, and I quote directly from the official SKF&R website,  “volunteer their time and financial support”.

I brought to his attention that Honor Guard member Barry Hassell approved the text late in 2008, even though at the time he had received over $2000 in overtime pay for his ‘volunteer’ services.

After ‘review’ and approval by FF Hassell, the false information on this page remained on public view for over 2 years, with tacit approval from the Chief and his administrative staff. During which time the Honor Guard continued to cost the public over $8,000 in overtime pay, plus thousands of dollars in lodging, travel and meals.

The Result

Fast action ensued. It took only one day for the page to be removed, sanitized of the word volunteer and re-listed. On the Where’s Waldo theme, visit the new and improved page, scroll down to the Honor Guard section at the bottom of the page.  Can you find the word ‘volunteer’?

Also, while you are there, apparently the proud members of the Honor Guard no longer deserve mention on the official web site. The original page proudly identified the current members, but Chief Church saw to it that they now serve in obscurity.

The chief has yet to respond to the letter I sent and I am not holding out much hope he will.

The Conclusions

The system seems to have worked quite well in at least one aspect.

By his silence, I conclude a cover-up in the making.

What’s Next

Let’s say we see what the State Auditors Office has to say.

UpDate

The SKF&R website apparently copied the description of an Honor Guard from Wikipedia, which also describes the members as Volunteers.

The Chiefs Reply

Read it here!

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Commissioners Gates, Fossos and Thompson remain in lockstep as we head into 2011. (Surprisingly, all five board members were on time for this meeting.)

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Who is this guy, what did he do to deserve such a rich pre-retirement assignment and where is he now?

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The word as I have it so far. 1/24/11

Silence

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The district is still pushing very hard for laws that force all new single family homes built in the state to have sprinkler systems installed.

At the meet the legislature meeting today, several actions were discussed that the Washington Fire Commissioners Association (WFCA) would like to see enacted into law. While some made sense, others were just not so easy.

But this one has been on the plate for years and single family home Sprinkler Systems is back. Although, if it is such a primary safety item, why is it listed fifth on a sheet of five Priority Issues? (Second on the list is establishing a state Volunteer Firefighter License Plate. Obviously more important.)

Walk the Talk

These issues were discussed at the first meeting of the day and included in the handouts was the Priority Issues sheet and a Residential Fire Sprinkler Myth and Facts sheet.

Quoting from the undated handout:

– Myth: “Sprinklers are just too expensive to install.”

-BUT IN FACT: With the development of quick-response sprinkler systems which can be supplied by a home’s domestic water supply, a 2,000 square-foot home under construction can be protected today be a system costing as little as $2,500 to $4,000 and an older home of comparable size can be retrofitted for about 50 percent more.

So according the the material offered to the legislators, only *$6,000 for an existing 2,000 square-foot home to be sprinkler ready.

The Caveat

Since the commissioners are pushing so damned hard to force each and every new home in the state to have a sprinkler system installed, and it is a mere pittance of *$6,000 to retrofit an older home, how many commissioners have sprinkler systems installed in THEIR homes?

I asked the question and was not surprise in the least at the response. Commissioner Fossos bowed his head and refused to participate in the request but not one of the other four commissioners live in a home with a sprinkler system! Murmuring about how old their houses are, they all confirmed that not one had this must-have life saving device installed.

Commissioner Freitas said that while his home is not so equipped, should he remodel, he would probably have one installed.

Hypocrisy

It is beginning to look like another simple case of pure hypocrisy. Essentially, these commissioners won’t spend $6,000 for their own safety, but by God, the WFCA says let’s pass a law that you have to!

So much for taking care of business in your own house before dictating how others live. And how many years has each commissioner served on the board, all the while pushing to have residential sprinklers mandatory?

William Bill Gates was originally elected in November of 2001

James Fossos was originally elected in November of 1993

Mark Freitas was originally elected in November of 1997

Mark Thompson was originally elected in November 1999

John Rickert was elected in January 2010 with previous service as a Fire Commissioner for one term from 2002 to 2007

*

Footnote – *$6,000 for an existing 2,000 square-foot home to be sprinkler ready was based on data provided at the 1/6/11 10am Special Commissioners meeting . I am using the data handed out by the commissioners to our elected officials for these cost estimates because at this time, not much else to base the sprinkler installation estimates on.

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In recognition of these tough economic times, the firefighters of South King Fire and Rescue have agreed to waive the contract negotiated 2% wage increase, permanently. Or at least until the next contract negotiations, anyway.

I was mistaken in thinking the Memorandum of Understanding with Local 2024 on the agenda for this afternoons meeting would deal with Honor Guard. That brewing story is on this site elsewhere.

Apparently, and according to Chief Allen Church, the union membership voted 76-26 to approve the move and the district will save an estimated $246,621 this year alone.

Kudos for stepping up to the challenge!

The math (according to Taxwatch, comment from the Mirror)

2% increase for 102 firefighters (the number voting) = $2,417.85 for each voting member

$2,417.85 *  50 =  $120,892.64 average annual wage per firefighter.

Yes, I suppose a one time forgoing of a 2% increase in these tough economic times might just be tolerable.

Taxwatch numbers checked

Taxwatch, thanks for the figures, but as was pointed out by another comment poster on the Mirror article, FifeKev (thanks), and with a check of the Local 2024 website,  a closer number would be that  “South King County Professional Firefighters is comprised of 130+ union firefighters”.  With that information applied to the calculation, the 2% at best only represents about $1897 and the annual salary estimate drops to about $94,854.

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1/6/11 – 10am Special Meeting

According to the agenda and what is printed in the Federal Way Mirror, the board of commissioners is holding a special session at 10:00 tomorrow morning to meet and greet our elected representatives in Olympia, and I presume the city.

The agenda says they will have a Commissioner Discussion with Elected Officials re: 2011 Legislative Session

Knowing what I do about how way things worked out  last year in Olympia for the fire districts, and against the voters, I am anxious to hear what schemes are in the works for the 2011 session. Although,  I am sure the real topics will not be revealed for fear of having too much advance exposure.

4pm Special Meeting

Meanwhile, later that same day, the commissioners again gather for another special meeting to discuss a more basic topic of contract issues.

I ponder if the only action item on the agenda, Memorandum of Understanding with Local #2024, has anything to do with the Honor Guard.


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Not true, yet. Remove the question marks and this headline is the expected result of the sudden and secretive contract change that took place in November.

Time for an exit strategy?

In order to form the groundwork for a sweetheart termination deal, just 2 years into his 6 year contract, Chief Allen Church and Commissioner Bill Gates craft a new and improved one.  After making the unexpected deal, Commissioner James Fossos and Commissioner Mark Thompson stumble over themselves to help Gates get it passed. Again, ignoring budget crisis, reason, caution and prudence when presented by Commissioners John Rickert and Mark Freitas, Gates and company march on. If not for the severity of the consequences, this action would be laughable.

I think the 8 year term is a sham. Based on the timing and present economic conditions, look for this headline to appear as reality a lot sooner than that. There must be some reason for this change and I bet we will never know. After all, the conditions say termination will be without cause. Any whim will do and we get screwed, again.

2 years of severance pay

Why suddenly make this staggering but easily passed over change? Instead of 12 months severance pay (section 7b)(excessive already) these two concoct a 24 month severance package (section 7b).

So after 32 years with the district, one could expect getting a nice bonus for being let go without cause might be reason enough to just take early retirement. After all, why stay? With this and his retirement pay, he will likely be making more after he is fired than he is now.

Does anyone else think that the days are numbered for Chief Church? Any bets on the outcome of the soon to be completed, and required, performance appraisal?

Who’s Watching the Budget

After the failure of Prop 1 this year, the district was supposedly looking for ways to reduce the budget, but not Gates and Church. In true good-ole-boy style, these two strike a deal to take an extra big bite from the taxpayers pocket.

Remedy?

Not likely. After all, with an environment of highly suspicious deals in other districts and past internal problems, like with Grant Gaspard, former South King Fire and Rescue assistant fire chief, we can add this one to the list.

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Federal way Mirror article on the Chiefs contract.

“The new contract is largely the same as the old one, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2008. Church’s salary is frozen at the 2010 level at $169,454; it was $155,000 in 2008. Church waived a $2,500 clothing allowance for 2011. However, the fire district’s contribution to a deferred compensation plan rose from $100 to $250 in the new contract. The new contract, signed by Church on Nov. 15 and by Gates on Nov. 19, expires on Dec. 31, 2018.”

RED FLAG – Sweetheart Deal Alert

Not reported in this article is the $169,545.16 reason Gates and Church quickly negotiated a new contract. Depending on why the chief leaves, he gets an additional TWO YEARS pay at the rate he is dismissed.

Because not reported earlier, the new contract has a 24 month severance package, double the previous contract.

This is starting to look a lot like the North Highline Fire District trouble recently audited by the State Auditors Office.

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