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One chief?

It became evident that there’s a fiery rift in Island County Fire District 2 during a sometimes heated meeting of the fire commissioners Tuesday night.

The issue of contention is that the commissioners are planning to hire Marv Koorn as the district’s full-time fire chief. They put off the decision until the next meeting because of concerns raised, but seem certain to make the hire next month.

It’ll be a big change for the department. Historically, the large department — which runs from Deception Pass to Libbey Road — has been divided into two districts, each with their own part-time chief. Fire Commissioner Ron Muzzall has described the division as a “Mason-Dixon line.”

Mick Lamar, who works at the federal fire department on the Navy base, has been the north division chief for years. Marv Koorn, who recently retired from the county roads department, has been the south chief.

Fire Commissioner Bruce Carman announced Tuesday that he’s already negotiated a contract with Koorn for the near-full-time job. The proposed contract is for $20 an hour, plus $2,500 in lieu of health care, with no vacation and no sick leave.

“Things would move much more efficiently with one chief,” Commissioner T.J Lamont said. “He would have more time to dedicate to the district.”

Of the 25 volunteer firefighters attending the meeting, the majority of them said they felt burned by the way the commissioners have gone about making the change.

The commissioners did not advertise the $40,000-a-year job. Some firefighters said they didn’t think there was a need for the change — “it’s been rammed down our throats” — and felt it’s unfair to Lamar. “I don’t hear the chiefs saying we need this,” one firefighter said.

Also, they were upset that the commissioners were moving forward with the decision without any input from the firefighters themselves. One firefighter said there should have been a subcommittee of volunteers to discuss the move.

Another firefighter suggested that the commissioners start over with the process. “If there’s a need for a paid chief, let’s make sure it has grassroots support,” he said.

Lamar was also very critical of the commissioners. “The process has been divisive,” he said. “It could have been handled much more smoothly and could have had more people involved. ... I can’t emphasize enough that the path we’re going down right now is the wrong move to make.”

Yet Lamar and all the firefighters emphasized over and over that they had nothing against Koorn, they were just upset over the process the commissioners have taken.

The commissioners were defensive about their actions, though Commissioner Muzzall acknowledged that mistakes have been made. “Lord knows this thing has gone fast in the last few months...” he said. “We’ve proceeded down a clumsy path and made some bad management decisions when it comes to including people in the district.”

At the same time, Muzzall said his responsibility is to the taxpayers, not to the firefighters — who, he said, “are not the right people to ask.” Because of district hierarchy — and fear of micromanaging — he said he discusses these types of issues only with the chiefs.

Commissioner Lamont pointed out that the idea of going to a single fire chief has been discussed for years. He said the commissioners have talked about hiring Koorn full-time during the last few meetings, which are open to the public.

Carman explained that he asked Lamar if he was interested in the full-time job, but Lamar wasn’t. So, he said, that left Koorn as the obvious choice.

Lamont agreed that the two chiefs were the only ones for the job. “They know the operation, they know the firefighters and they know the equipment,” he said. “I don’t see any sense in bringing in someone from the outside.”

The commissioners characterized the current controversy as another example of the rift that has developed between the north and south division of the fire district. They said going to a single chief would band-aid the problem.

“We’ve got to get the north and south together,” Muzzall said. “This has been a priority of mine since my first term.”

Lamont and several volunteers countered that the break is not between the two districts so much as between the fire department and the fire commissioners. One firefighters called the commissioners “the good old boys system.”

Lamar blasted the commissioners, particularly Carman and Lamont, for micro-managing the departments and try to run things without input from the professionals. “You guys have had the chance to give up the reigns and your haven’t for eight years,” he said.

In the end, Lamont made a motion to give the job to Koorn starting Jan. 1. Lamar, however, suggested that the decision be put off until the next meeting in order to give Koorn the chance to talk to all the district officers. He argued it would help dispel some of the bitterness generated from the hiring process.

Koorn, who was noticeably quiet during the lengthy discussion, said he would be happy to meet with the senior firefighters.

The commissioners agreed and the motion was rescinded until November.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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