North Whidbey Fire and Rescue firefighters, staff and members of the public aired grievances and reiterated complaints to the three-person board of commissioners at a special meeting Monday evening.
The packed meeting at the Heller Road fire station lasted over two hours and consisted of a stream of commenters addressing the commissioners in turn, with the most common criticisms being a lack of transparency, poor communication and inadequate funding.
Many said they were also upset about the switch to 9 a.m. for regularly scheduled meetings.
“Morale has plunged,” Firefighter/EMT Rich Hoover said. “Our current turnout gear is in bad shape and needs repairs and replacement urgently.”
Commissioner TJ Lamont responded to Hoover’s complaints of a lack of transparency by pointing out that he’d already sat down with him to address some of his concerns, and that’d he offered to do the same with other firefighters.
“I don’t know how much more transparent we can be,” Lamont said. “I don’t want it to feel like we’re trying to hide anything.”
Hoover and several other firefighters said they want the board to get to know them better and show up more, but Commissioner Marvin Koorn pointed out that they don’t want to look like they’re micromanaging; the board’s job is to set policy, not manage the department.
Some later commenters agreed that they didn’t want to be micromanaged.
The Whidbey News-Times published a letter in early April signed by 26 district members that stated they had a lack of confidence in the board and urged the public to become more involved.
Captain/EMT Matt VanGiesen stood up at the meeting and took responsibility for writing the letter, stating that they were taking the “high road.”
“It wasn’t about bashing anybody,” he said. “…This letter was truly about making this organization awesome.”
He complimented the board’s work and said that the public has been missing from discussions so far.
“You’re the reason we’re here. And I think you’ve been missing,” he said as he addressed the crowded room. VanGiesen said communication between the public, the commissioners and fire staff has been broken.
“And what I saw tonight was a whole lot of frustration, but a lot of it’s based on rumors and innuendos and misinformation,” he said.
Commenters also said a purported investigation into the interim chief is another point of contention, with some saying they didn’t understand why it is happening, when it will end, or what the status is.
The meeting wrapped up after two and a half hours, with Lamont stating that he is willing to listen to members who have complaints, though it might not produce action immediately.
“Thanks for showing up and being a part of this,” he said.
“We will try to be more transparent.”