Fire district begins search for new chief
The commissioners of the North Whatcom Fire & Rescue Services (NWFRS) began the process of hiring a new chief at their regular monthly meeting Monday night after dealing with left-over details following the departure of finance director Diane DeFries.
After completing their regular agenda, the four commissioners present adjourned to executive session to discuss personnel and litigation issues, after which they reconvened briefly to direct division chief Bill Steele to advertise the open chief’s position.
They also directed their attorney, Rich Davis, to send a letter to former finance director Diane DeFries informing her of their “intent to terminate” her employment.
Previously, at a special meeting held on December 28, board president Roger Hawley stated following an executive session that they would not be offering contracts to either former fire administrator Dave Crossen or DeFries for 2005.
Crossen had been quoted as saying that a contract was a condition of his continuing in his job. The commissioners declined to offer Crossen either a formal contract or a new term under the original letter of agreement by which he had been hired in 2003, so his employment with NWFRS ended with the expiration of the original letter of agreement on December 31.
DeFries had also asked in writing for a formal contract to continue as finance manager, making that a condition of her continued employment. At a second special commission meeting held January 3 in Lynden, the board directed Roger Hawley to write to DeFries accepting what the board viewed as her letter of resignation effective December 29, 2004.At that same meeting, the administrative assistant DeFries fired on December 14, Benita Williams, was hired back by the commissioners as an administrative assistant in the Lynden NWFRS office on a month-to-month basis for a maximum of six months on a probationary status. DeFries’ departure had left the NWFRS office with no administrative personnel, as secretary Kristi Heutink quit just 10 minutes after Williams’s firing.
Part-time secretary Alice O’Gorman was shifted from district 13 to the Lynden NWFRS office to help pick up the slack, and both division chiefs, Bill Steele at district 3 and Jim Rutherford at district 13, were told to report directly to the NWFRS board of commissioners until a new chief is hired. “We hope that’s as soon as possible,” said board president Roger Hawley, “so we want to move quickly.”
At Monday’s meeting Williams was appointed also to serve as secretary of the board of commissioners as well as district investment officer, both legally required for NWFRS to conduct its business. The motion by commissioner Butch Hinchey after the meeting was re-convened following their executive session, to ask their attorney to contact DeFries, was described later by board president Hawley as “tightening up” the process, making sure it was done properly and fairly. “This also gives her something concrete to respond to, if she wants to do that. She could come to our next meeting, for example,” Hawley said.
Commissioners also heard from Rutherford on division 13 staffing proposals to deal with the district’s shortage of full-time-equivalent (FTE) firefighters to cover each shift. “We have 12 FTE’s to cover three shifts, which is four per shift,” Rutherford said, “but that doesn’t allow for vacations or other time off.”
Rutherford said that the board could either hire three more FTE’s at an estimated cost of $195,000 per year or hire present employees to work overtime, which would cost a little over half that amount, or an estimated $120,000. No action was taken by the board.
The next NWFRS meeting will be Tuesday, February 8 at 6 p.m. at the Lynden station, 307 19th Street, Lynden.