Fire district disagreement could stall consolidation

Published on Thu, Jun 23, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Contention over how a new North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) fire chief will be chosen could derail a consolidation with Fire District 4 that has been planned for months.

NWFR fire chief Tom Fields recently announced his retirement, effective January 1, 2012, which started discussions between the two districts’ boards of fire commissioners over how his replacement would be chosen. Fields and NWFR’s board of commissioners would prefer one of his three chief officers or District 4 chief Bill McLaughlin be promoted, but the District 4 commissioners want a more open application process. Fields’ chief officers comprise assistant chief John Swobody and division chiefs Jeff Hofstad and Henry Hollander.

Consolidation means the two districts would share funds and personnel. Fields said the consolidation, if both boards of commissioners approve it, could lead to a merger, which requires a vote of the people.

At the June 16 NWFR commissioners’ meeting, District 4 commissioner Marybeth Dean said she wanted the hiring process for the new fire chief to be open and advertised. She said most other equivalent public positions she’s familiar with have been advertised, and she was concerned with public perception of a selection process that was not publicly announced.

Fields and the NWFR commissioners, however, are concerned a chief from outside the district could change the direction North Whatcom is heading. Fields said he and the fire commissioners have worked too hard over the past six years for an outside chief to come in and change things.

Fields also said the proposed consolidated budget for the two districts simply does not have the money to fund an outside hiring process, nor does it have the money to pay one head chief and four chief officers.

Simply put, if an outside hire is made, one chief officer will have to be laid off. Fields said he thinks paying a chief officer’s severance package after he was let go, as required by his contract, would not be the best use of taxpayer dollars.

But the amount of money is not an issue for Fields. He made clear that even if he had $2 million, he would not hire outside because the two districts already have four potential fire chiefs who could be promoted. Hiring from outside would send the wrong message to his chief officers and show a disregard for the years they’ve put into their jobs, Fields explained.

“We have four people here who could do the job, why would we go outside?” he said.

Fields said promoting a chief officer is common practice in a fire department or district. Fields was hired as NWFR fire chief, with no assessments and no tests, after working as a consultant for the district. He previously owned FS2 Management Options, a fire services consulting business based in Bellingham.

Fire chief Gary Russell of Fire District 7 in Ferndale said his board of commissioners typically chooses to promote from within the district rather than engage in a costly selection process of candidates from the outside, though the District 7 board of commissioners has not had to hire a new fire chief since 1986.

Chief Bill Boyd of the Bellingham Fire Department said he was chosen as chief in 2004 after an open assessment and testing process. He explained he was in competition with three other candidates from the Pacific Northwest after a nationwide job search.

“ Most [districts] hold some kind of assessment center or interview process to fill the positions,” Boyd said. “Typically, the larger the department the more involved the selection process.”

McLaughlin said he never meant to convey to Fields or the NWFR commissioners that an outside hiring process for Fields’ position was an absolute necessity for consolidation to go through, but said the District 4 commissioners wanted some assurance that outside candidates could be considered. While District 4 does not need to consolidate with NWFR or any other fire district, McLaughlin said such a move would be mutually beneficial. Fields and the NWFR commissioners agreed.

McLaughlin indicated he would step down if Swobody, Hofstad or Hollander faced being laid off after a new fire chief was hired. Dean and McLaughlin said they would convey the NWFR commissioners’ opinions on the application process for a new fire chief to the District 4 commissioners.

“[This discussion] needed to be done, but it probably should have been done a few months ago,” NWFR commissioner Bill Salter said.

The two boards of commissioners will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, at Fire Station 71 in Lynden, 307 19th Street, to discuss the consolidation contract. The meeting could include an executive session in which the qualifications or performance of a public employee will be discussed.