In their third special meeting of the month, fire commissioners Bill Meursing and Stan Riffle accepted a letter of resignation from commission chair David Gellatly, handed the chief’s hat to Christopher Carleton and voted to return under the supervision of the Whatcom County medical program director.
Meursing, who is taking over as commission chair, started the August 29 meeting by admonishing the crowd to not repeat the unruly behavior of the August 22 meeting. “There will be no comments. There will be no interruptions. The sheriff is here, and I really don’t want to talk to the sheriff about you guys,” he said. “If any of you have questions, put it in writing and within five days you’ll get an answer.”
Gellatly was not present and in his letter of resignation, effective immediately, stated that “at this time I would like to devote my time to personal matters, family and business.”
“I’m done,” Gellatly said prior to the meeting.
Meursing and Riffle voted to direct Carleton to communicate with the state department of health and transfer the district back under the medical supervision of the Whatcom County medical program director, Dr. Marvin Wayne. “We are going back to the Whatcom County medical director because we are in Whatcom County,” Meursing said. “It just makes sense.”
The state placed the district under the control of the San Juan County medical program director in May 2012 after former chief Nick Kiniski accused the Bellingham fire department of being a hostile work environment due to union intransigence, and said it would make it impossible to be signed off to work as a paramedic on the Point. Wayne also oversees the Bellingham paramedics.
Wayne stated that should the state approve returning, the transition should be seamless. “Our protocols are almost identical” for emergency medical technicians, he said. Carleton is already a Whatcom County advanced life support provider, he added, and would be able to work as a paramedic in Point Roberts. Wayne added that if the Point were to be returned under his control, there was likely no going back if a new slate of commissioners wanted to turn the tables and rehire Kiniski. “The statement to me from the state, and they will make this decision, is if they return to Whatcom County they will remain with Whatcom County. We won’t play a game of ping-pong or yo-yo. It’s in no one’s best interest.”
Carleton outlined what he termed a matrix of response options to medical emergencies, including B.C. Ambulance responding to Point Roberts, rendezvous with a Whatcom Medic One paramedic unit, Airlift Northwest and help from U.S. and Canadian coast guard auxiliaries. “We have a lot of things built into the system to protect you,” he told the audience.
Paramedic service will be available in Point Roberts when Carleton is responding on the Point. “I do not live here. I live in Bellingham,” he said. He did not repeat the offer he made at the August 22 meeting to rent an apartment on the Point to be available more often.
Once returned under Whatcom County medical direction, Carelton said,“We can draw from EMTs and paramedics already in Whatcom County and come up to fill as many holes as we can and use your money to give you that service.” However, he said the Point would not have 24/7 paramedic coverage, which it didn’t have when Kiniski was chief and responding as a paramedic. “There’s never been any guarantee we could provide you with 24/7 paramedic service, even with a full time chief and paramedic,” he said
Rob Dean was permitted to ask a question and he wondered at the logic of paying to train Kiniski as a paramedic and then returning to a system relying primarily on EMTs. While commissioners declined to comment on Kiniski’s termination, Carleton did speak in what he termed “theoreticals.”
“The certification cannot supersede ethics, conduct, moral turpitude, wrongdoings by the person holding the certification,” he said. “No one should be put over public trust because of certification. A lot of people go to school and they just don’t fit with the organization so they’re released.”
Dean responded that “because personalities don’t get along that’s no reason to dismiss someone.” Commissioners asked Carleton to not respond further.
Commissioners headed into executive session with the written purpose to “evaluate the qualifications of the applicant for chief, to review the performance of the interim chief and to discuss the terms of an individual employment agreement based on those qualifications and performance pursuant to RCW 42.30.110 (1)(g).”
Reminded that under RCW 42.30.140, “discussion by a governing body of salaries, wages and other conditions of employment” shall occur in an open meeting, Meursing stated those items would not be discussed in executive session. “We will try to stay within the realms of the law,” he said. “It’s difficult sometimes.”
However, when commissioners returned, Meursing stated that with their attorney’s blessing they had “discussed a few items in the employment contract” for Carleton, such as work hours, which remain undetermined, and the term of the contract. “This contract will be effective September 1, 2012 and will continue until September, 2015.” They had also agreed on an annual performance review and other conditions of employment in closed session, in apparent violation of the above-referenced RCW.
Commissioners voted unanimously to remove the interim status and appoint Carleton chief.
These actions followed two earlier special meetings that raised a firestorm of protest after commissioners unceremoniously dumped Kiniski as fire chief and the Point’s lone paramedic.
On August 15 commissioners Meursing and 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 Carleton as chief, with John Shield as assistant chief. The motion was unanimously adopted. Commission chairman 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 stated they would be taking action in response to a letter received from Kiniski’s attorney.
In the letter, Gregory Kosanke listed 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. 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 maintained that under the state’s minimum wage act he cannot legally volunteer for the same organization he works for. He saw his position as a full time chief.
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 one is paid for labor, would allow administration and command to be sufficiently distinct. However, he said, there have been differing legal opinions on the question.
The state auditors office said they were aware of the meeting following a complaint from a citizen questioning its adherence to the state open public meetings act. “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.”
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.
“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. The district acquired and outfitted a paramedic response vehicle earlier this year. “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 commissioner’s 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.
“I’m wondering how much they have considered the impact on the public,” he 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.”
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 public responds
Even standing room was in short supply as more than 100 people turned out on August 22 to protest the termination of fire chief Kiniski, or to at least find out why commissioners fired him. They got no answers.
Fire district commissioners Meursing, Gellatly and 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,” Derek Simpkins said. “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.”
A series of residents essentially asked the commissioners to explain their actions but they declined to answer. “This isn’t a question and answer period,” Gellatly said.
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. He 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, sustained applause.
Arthur Reber 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.”
Carleton, who is replacing Kiniski as interim chief, spoke after the public comment period closed, and aggressively defended his qualifications for the job and the effectiveness of the department under his command. Carleton was mercilessly heckled, prompting Gellatly to frequently call for order. “This is not a discussion, it’s a speech,” Laritt said. “He’s trying to defend something. It should be the board talking.”
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, who had not been at the August 15 meeting, abstaining.
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 current commissioners who are not on the ballot until 2013, to protests at fire district meetings. The next regular meeting is not scheduled until September 12.