Even standing room was in short supply as more than 100 people turned out to protest the termination of fire chief Nick Kiniski, or to at least find out why commissioners fired him.
They got no answers.
At the August 22 special meeting of the fire district board of commissioners Bill Meursing, David Gellatly and Stan Riffle adopted the minutes of the August 15 special meeting attended by Meursing and Riffle at which Kiniski was terminated, and then opened the floor to public comments.
“Nick Kiniski has given the residents of Point Roberts very devoted service,” said Derek Simpkins. “You have put the lives of everyone at risk because you have sent him away. As a result of your decision several other members have resigned and you no longer have a properly functioning fire department.” His comments and several that followed in the same vein were met with loud applause from the audience, prompting Gellatly to quip that the meeting was not the academy awards. “Can you save the applause for the end?” he said.
George Peat, who owns the former Breakers building, asked if commissioners had conducted a risk assessment prior to making the decision to terminate Kiniski, and wondered what the possible impact on insurance rates might be. “What is the liability of the fire department if someone gets hurt or dies?” he asked.
The board refused to answer any questions regarding the termination from the public. Commissioners Bill Meursing and Stan Riffle sat mute and stony-faced throughout the proceedings with Gellatly being the only commissioner to interact with the public. “This isn’t a question and answer period,” Gellatly said. Several of the audience members who had signed up to speak declined to do so, stating they had come for answers. “No one knows why you made the decision,” to terminate Kiniski, Deb Ferguson said, and many had come to the meeting to find that out.
Peter Laritt said the board was acting recklessly. “There are ways to run a board and there are ways not to,” he said, citing experience on both sides of the table working with boards as an educator and running an orphanage.
“The way to run a board in a small town is to hire the best person you can, which I assume you did, and let them do their job. You don’t hire and fire. You hire and succeed.”
Laritt encouraged commissioners to admit they made an “intemperate, quick decision” and not squander the time, money and training the county and the community have put into Kiniski’s training and recent changes he has enacted at the department. “The right thing to do is to go back and say, I’m going to make this man succeed!” His comments met with loud, long applause.
Arthur Reber, chair of the community advisory committee, said he had been in contact with the county, the state auditor and the state attorney general’s office regarding how Kiniski was fired. “There are many indications the entire process took place outside of standard codes,” he said.
He said commissioners had a duty to clarify why Kiniski was fired, and he said there could only be three potential reasons: budget, performance, or personal. “There seems to be no evidence the budget is an issue. We just doubled the levy. There is no evidence performance is an issue,” so he concluded they had personal issues for taking the action. “You don’t have to like your chief,” Reber said. “The chief doesn’t need to like you. You need to do your jobs.”
Christopher Carleton, who the board appointed as interim chief to replace Kiniski, spoke after the public comment period closed, aggressively defending his qualifications for the job and the effectiveness of the department under his command.
“You’re very upset because you’ve lost someone important to your community,” he said. “You’ve forgotten about everyone else who responds to your home. My organization is not one person. You have 30 to 40 dedicated responders other than the person who has been removed.”
Carleton, who lives in Ferndale and is a full-time paramedic as well as a paramedic instructor, said when he is in Point Roberts he can provide a standard of care equivalent to that provided by Kiniski, and the department has Deb Shields and Bill Skinner trained as emergency medical technicians at the intermediate life support level. “She can do everything except more advanced things,” he said of Shields.
Carleton was mercilessly interrupted, prompting Gellatly to frequently call for order. “This is not a discussion, it’s a speech,” Laritt said. “He’s trying to defend something [the board did]. It should be the board talking.”
“We came here to listen to the board,” Joyce Kiniski agreed. “You’re fighting their fight,” she told Carleton. As order degenerated in the room Gellatly threatened to shut the meeting down and move it to another location, or get law enforcement involved. “Sit down and be quiet or I’ll ask the deputy to remove you,” he warned Reber.
Commissioners then took action on an agenda item titled “consideration of ratification of a motion” which was being considered “to address a concern that the posting of the August 15, 2012 special meeting notice at the meeting location may have been removed prior to the meeting.”
Meursing then moved to ratify the August 15 motion to terminate Kiniski and appoint Carleton with Shields as assistant chief. Meursing and Riffle voted to approve the motion with Gellatly abstaining, saying he had not been at the August 15 meeting and could not vote to ratify a motion on which he had not voted.
“What you did is not legally binding,” Reber said. “You ratified a motion, not a vote. Now it’s open for discussion. You need to get a lawyer.”
Gellatly said after the meeting that the district’s legal counsel had drafted the special meeting notice and agenda to make sure they were adhering to state laws governing open public meetings.
Following a 20-minute executive session to discuss terms of an individual employment contract with Carleton, Gellatly adjourned the meeting without taking further action, prompting boos from the audience.
Outside the fire station discussions continued, with community members considering everything from recall elections to remove commissioners, who will not be on the ballot until 2013 according to the county elections office, to protests at fire district meetings. The commissioners next regular meeting is scheduled for September 12.