This story has been edited to reflect an attribution error in the third paragraph.
Point Roberts fire district commissioners have fired fire chief and local paramedic Nick Kiniski.
At a special meeting August 15, commissioners Bill Meursing and Stan Riffle went directly into an executive session with the stated purpose of discussing personnel matters. They asked Kiniski to join them 15 minutes later. They returned to open session shortly afterward and Riffle made a motion to terminate Kiniski’s employment and appoint Bellingham paramedic and former acting chief Christopher Carleton as chief, with John Shields as assistant chief. The motion was unanimously adopted. Commission chairman David Gellatly did not attend the meeting.
When asked what the grounds for Kiniski’s termination were, Riffle stated there “were no grounds.” He added that they had asked for Kiniski’s resignation but he “did not offer it.”
Prior to the meeting, when asked which personnel matters were to be discussed, Riffle said they would be taking action in response to a letter received from Kiniski’s attorney.
In the letter, Gregory Kosanke addressed issues he felt needed to be addressed in preparing a “written contract of employment” for Kiniski. Since taking over as acting chief from Mark Ellison in June 2009, Kiniski has been without an employment contract and has been paid $36 per hour. It is his second time around as chief of the fire district; he earned $75,000 a year while employed by North Whatcom Fire and Rescue as a full-time division chief. The Point Roberts fire district separated from that organization in 2004. He has been in conflict with commissioners in recent months regarding whether his position is a full-time chief’s position or a part-time administrator and volunteer chief.
“The question of having a part-time chief is our ilk, with a paid administrator,” Riffle said. “That’s what we’re moving towards.”
Kiniski has pointed out that under the state’s minimum wage act he cannot legally volunteer for the same organization for which he works. Former chief Bill Skinner, who worked as a paid administrator and volunteer chief, said he felt the law, which states one cannot volunteer in the same capacity that one is paid for, would allow administration and command to be sufficiently distinct. However, he said, there have been differing legal opinions on the question.
The state auditor’s office said they were aware of the meeting following a complaint from a citizen questioning its adherence to the state open public meetings act. The move to fire Kiniski was taken during the executive session and constitutes taking official action, which can only be taken in open session.
“They cannot take action in an executive session. They can discuss it but they have to take action in an open meeting,” said Mindy Chambers, spokesperson for the state auditor’s office. “To hire someone or fire someone is certainly taking action.”
Although the meeting was recorded on Riffle’s personal recording device, there was no secretary present and no minutes were taken. “They have to take minutes,” Chambers said. She said the recording would act as minutes if it were transcribed and available for public inspection in a reasonable period of time.
There are also questions about the scope of the meeting and the lack of an agenda. The meeting notice stated the business to be transacted as “personnel matters,” yet commissioners also took action during the meeting to approve a new standard operating procedure. Riffle said he posted the notice at the fire hall although it was not there on the day of the meeting.
In addition, it is unclear how the meeting was called without the two attending commissioners discussing it, which would constitute an illegal meeting. Two commissioners constitute a quorum, and all discussion of fire district business between them is required to occur in an open meeting.
Meursing said at the conclusion of the meeting that he would be contacting Carleton to ask him to take over the chief’s position, which he has not yet been offered. Until such a time as Carleton or another paramedic accepts the position as chief, the department has no paramedic to serve the community.
“As of tonight, we have no advanced life support on the Point,” Riffle said. Meursing disagreed, stating that when Carleton is here the service would still be available. “You can’t state we have no advanced life support service,” he said. “I’d leave that alone.”
As far as a transition plan, Meursing said they didn’t have one but would be developing one. “We have to go slowly,” he said. “We may have an unveiling in a month, three months.”
Skinner said he was disappointed in the commissioners’ decision to fire Kiniski rather than negotiate the gap between their divergent understandings of the position. “I’m concerned where it’s going,” he said. Two worries he had were the commissioners’ rejection of Kiniski’s offer to continue to respond as a volunteer, and their move to appoint the assistant chief, which is traditionally the chief’s job. Kiniski has said he would be willing to continue to serve the community as a volunteer but that he interpreted Riffle’s directive to hand in his keys and stay off the property as an indication they would not welcome his service.
“I’m wondering how much they have considered the impact on the public,” Kiniski
Skinner said, adding that several emergency medical technicians had told him they were considering quitting the department as a result of the decision. “There are possible far-reaching consequences,” he added.
Kiniski said he was saddened by the decision. “Probably one of the greatest things in my life so far has been volunteering and serving the people of Point Roberts and going to school to become a paramedic to serve them better,” he said. “Even with all this, I’d do it all again.”
The next regular meeting of the Point Roberts fire district commissioners will start at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 12, at the Benson Road district offices.