Citing ‘toxic’ atmosphere, North Whidbey Fire captain submits resignation after 15 years with department

A captain at North Whidbey Fire and Rescue has announced his resignation citing his lack of trust in the fire commissioners.

After 15 years, Matt VanGiesen notified the board Tuesday he would no longer serve the district. He said the atmosphere in the organization had become “toxic” and he no longer felt supported after the departure of fire chief Mark Kirko.

In a previous interview, Kirko said he left in part because of a lack of trust and support from one commissioner. He did not specify which commissioner.

VanGiesen said he’s taken issue with what he perceived as a lack of transparency by the commissioners. In particular, he named Commissioner Marvin Koorn. He gave an example of an investigation that began last year into Kirko that appears to have no record of being authorized in a public meeting. He claims Koorn, who was board chairman at the time, initiated the investigation.

According to the Open Public Meetings Act, government bodies cannot make decisions outside of public meetings.

Koorn said a complaint was received and sent to the attorney to review. He said policies and other documents are routinely sent to the attorney.

He said the board does not make decisions outside of public meetings. The minutes from the commissioners’ regular meeting on April 10, 2018 show the board went into executive session to discuss “the chief’s job description and disciplinary actions of a member.”

There was no decision made during the session, according to the minutes.

VanGiesen said he’s not confident the board has a concrete “vision” for the future of the district. He said there hasn’t been an adequate effort to increase the budget and instead a tendency to blame the fire chief.

Koorn said the vision is to keep the department mostly volunteer and part time because of budget constraints.

In meetings and an open letter, several volunteers have cited the district’s limited budget as a point of tension and reason for low morale within the district.

VanGiesen said he thinks there should be more of a process to involve the volunteers in decision-making processes, or at least a better system of communication once decisions are made.

He said when policies are changed, often the volunteers aren’t notified.

“They don’t have to listen to us, but they should at least hear us,” he said.

The board isn’t supposed to have much contact or interaction with the members, Koorn said.

That responsibility falls upon the fire chief, he said.

VanGiesen hasn’t advocated for other volunteers to resign, and he doesn’t think it’s a poor decision to stay, he said.

“We all want to help our community,” he said of the firefighters. “Hopefully, they can find a way to still do that.”

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