By Stefanie Donahue
An internal dispute between North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) commissioners came to a head after one of the five commissioners elected to serve the district filed suit against it – the issue is now in the public eye thanks to a special meeting held September 28.
The nearly hour-long debriefing described months of back-and-forth between NWFR commissioner Dean Berkeley and fire chief William Pernett, as well as the previous chief Ron Anderson. Pernett explained that the disagreement stemmed from repeated requests by Berkeley to seek reimbursement for personal fire equipment he claims went missing at the station – all of which have been denied by the district on multiple occasions.
In September, Berkeley filed a small claims court suit against the district for $1,000 to pay for what he estimates is nearly $900 worth of gear. Chief Pernett will represent the district in court on November 3.
Berkeley, who served as a volunteer firefighter starting in 2009, claims to be missing a helmet, boots, flashlight, Res-Q-Rench and a small hand axe, which he stored in the NWFR station.
Despite multiple searches, none of the missing equipment has been found, said Pernett. As a result, requests for reimbursement have been denied.
“I told him that I would treat the issue the same way with any other volunteer and I didn’t want to seem like I was giving him special treatment because he was a commissioner,” Pernett said.
Berkeley admits to not returning gear he received as a volunteer, which encompasses a pager and charger, firefighter badge and jacket, helmet and boots – all of which is required to be returned five days after a volunteer’s service ends, which the district said was in 2012.
Berkeley said he is withholding the gear to take to court as evidence to prove he was provided with subpar equipment. At last month’s meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to file a countersuit for the cost of missing gear.
“There’s never ever been a complaint,” said commissioner Rich Bosman in response to claims about the NWFR gear. It’s examined by the training department and if anything was wrong with it, it wouldn’t be issued, he said.
The disagreement is just one of the many involving Berkeley and the district. He’s had a problem with how things operate since he started, he explained.
He transferred to the station from Sedro-Woolley and became dissatisfied with what he considered a bureaucratic and disorganized system in Blaine, he said. Volunteers, he said, didn’t receive what they needed for the job.
But he continued with NWFR because he was in it for the community, he said. In 2013, he won a close race for fire commissioner against incumbent Roger Hawley, a result he attributes to his platform to keep the Custer fire station, which was surplussed in 2013, and his pledge to support district firefighters.
In a joint statement released September 30, fellow commissioners criticized Berkeley’s actions, which they believe are disruptive in their effort to serve the public. The statement addressed a series of past and present conflicts they’ve had with Berkeley, including the status of his residency and repeated requests for reimbursement for meetings they say he wasn’t approved to attend.
Berkeley’s seat was empty during the meeting filled with district staff. He said he called the fire chief early that day to request remote involvement by phone. Berkeley said he followed-up with text messages, but received no word back. Commissioner Bosman said otherwise. He said Berkeley didn’t respond until shortly before the meeting started, requesting to attend telephonically. But staff didn’t have enough notice to setup a connection, he said.
The second half of the meeting addressed concerns about Berkeley’s residency status prompted by statements he made at a White Rock city council meeting held in June where he said,“I am four generations White Rock,” he said. “My residence is on Russell Avenue. So I live here, but I work in Washington state. So this is my community.”
By law, all commissioners elected to represent the district must reside in the fire district and must be a registered voter.
In an interview with The Northern Light, Berkeley dismissed the comments as a “Freudian slip,” pointing out that he owns a home on Fishermans Bend Lane in Blaine and has three children who are students in the Blaine school district. He said he was born in White Rock, holds dual citizenship and often makes the trip north to care for his father and visit family.
According to the Whatcom County Assessor and Treasurer’s office, Berkeley does own a home on Fishermans Bend Lane in Blaine. But for the commission, it’s not enough.
At the meeting, commissioners agreed to launch a formal investigation to confirm or deny suspicion about Berkeley’s full-time residency status. They’re also looking into repeated attempts by Berkeley to seek reimbursement for meetings they say he wasn’t assigned to attend.
As policy, board members are eligible for reimbursement for time spent at assigned meetings. That’s not true for unassigned meetings, which commissioners stated included Berkeley’s attendance at the White Rock city council and a handful of others. In total, Pernett said he’s denied about five reimbursement requests.
To counter, Berkeley considers his actions an effort in an initiative he’s led to foster relationships across the border. To him, it’s crucial to ensuring ease of access to resources closely available in Canada.
However, commissioners continue to assert the fact that all decisions are to be made by the board and representation at cross-border meetings requires prior approval.
“My job is to build relationships,” Berkeley said. “All they’re trying to do is discredit me.”