One less Crossen to bear for commissioners and firefighters
Dave Crossen’s tenure as fire chief of North Whatcom Fire & Rescue Services (NWFRS) came to an end at midnight on New Year’s Eve. At a special meeting held three days earlier, NWFRS commissioners Butch Hinchey, Roger Hawley and Rich Bosman voted unanimously to not offer Crossen a contract that would have extended his employment beyond the end of the year, effectively ending his employment at the stroke of midnight on December 31.
In a separate action, they also voted to not extend a contract to NWFRS finance director Diane DeFries. Both DeFries and Crossen were employed under “letters of agreement” drawn up by NWFRS attorney Frank Chmelik, and had asked for contracts were their employment to continue. Bosman said the two matters were related but did not elaborate beyond saying that Crossen had suggested that DeFries also get a contract were she to be employed beyond the end of the year.
“He (Crossen) asked us to let him know where he stood,” said commission chair Hawley, “asking if he was going to be here next year or in Arizona, so we set this special meeting to settle the matter before the end of the year.”
The announcement came at the end of the special meeting, held December 28, after nearly two hours of deliberation with Crossen in executive session. DeFries, whose sister was recently hospitalized after being run over by a van at Bellis Fair Mall, was on emergency family leave and did not attend the board meeting.
The commissioners reconvened following their lengthy executive session and Bosman moved in a quiet voice not to extend a contract to Crossen. Hinchey seconded Bosman’s motion, and when the unanimous vote was cast the 80 or so firefighters present stood and cheered. Though each of the commissioners insisted that dissatisfaction with Crossen’s performance which firefighters had expressed to them in writing last October had little to do with their decision, their action in terminating Crossen was seemingly approved by nearly everyone connected with NWFRS who was in the room.
“Crossen was an interim chief,” said Hawley later, “and knew he was not the permanent choice. We just wanted to get on with organizing ourselves for the future and finding a permanent chief.”
Hinchey agreed, saying that the “dissatisfaction wasn’t much of a factor. We felt a need to move on, and will be looking for someone with a little more energy.” Hinchey did say, however, that his earlier resignation as chair of the NWFRS board of commissioners, “had to do with not being pleased about the direction we were moving, having to push to get things done.”
Hinchey also said that the commissioners “need to have leadership in place that reflects where the commissioners are coming from, and now we’ll have that.” Crossen had made it clear to the commissioners that neither he nor DeFries would continue without both being offered a contract, “which left us having to do something now,” Hinchey said.
Crossen, 59, was hired December 1, 2002, to replace former NWFRS chief Mike Campbell who had been put on administrative leave following his arrest for child rape. At the time, concern had been evidenced about the NWFRS budget. During his 25 months on the job, fire district 5 (Point Roberts) elected to leave the NWFRS, leaving it with districts 3 (rural Lynden) and 13 (Blaine/Birch Bay) that together cover 150 square miles and include roughly 26,000 people.
Crossen trimmed the budget by trimming staff and dismissing, among others, division chief Bob Hamstra and long-time office manager Barb Wallace, both of district 3, and maintenance chief Ryan Oord who worked out of district 13. The shop building where Oord operated his maintenance facility was sold to the city of Lynden and the NWFRS training tower, which simulates a four story building, to the city of Lynden fire department.
Lt. Ray Davidson, president of the firefighter’s union local 3867 for district 13, said that Crossen’s departure was seen as positive “by the majority of the firefighters. We have a lot of work to do just to stay even with what’s going on, in addition to fire suppression things like training, fire prevention, public health in operating our basic life support aid cars, and participation in local and regional politics, and a lot just wasn’t getting done.”
Davidson said the biggest issue was how to handle changed responsibilities when the EMS levy failed recently in Whatcom County, leaving open the question of how NWFRS and Medic One, operated by the Bellingham fire department, were to work together.
“He should have been prepared for that one, but we didn’t hear much from him,” Davidson said. Discontent within the ranks built rapidly in the past year, according to several firefighters who declined to allow their names to appear in print. Most of the firefighters and office staff met in a kind of round table discussion last October to air their concerns about lack of follow-through from what came to be called the administrative team, led by Crossen and DeFries, following which a written summary was sent to the NWFRS commissioners.
Things reached a head in the office December 14, the day a regular state audit was scheduled to begin, when DeFries fired Benita Williams, hired the previous January, supposedly because she did not meet the position’s expectations. That opinion was strongly challenged by several firefighters interviewed for this story.
“The auditors came in at 8:15,” said fellow office employee Kristi Heutink, “and Diane fired Benita at 8:30, and then I quit 10 minutes later.” The auditors were non-plussed, said Heutink, but proceeded as best they could without an office staff to help them find records to go through.
In a meeting held last Monday, Williams was re-hired by the commissioners as a special administrative assistant to help with the transition as the directors search for a new chief, expected to be on the job within six months. Until then, division chiefs Bill Steele in Lynden and Jim Rutherford in Blaine will report directly to the board. The audit was completed on December 30 and will be made public following exit interviews with NWFRS staff set for next week.